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'Coach Crash Syndrome'

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Mark Easton | 14:00 UK time, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

I call it "coach crash syndrome". No sooner have we digested the details of a particularly nasty accident involving a coach, than drivers all over Britain career off the road, killing and injuring their passengers.

It is an illusion, of course. What has happened is that the first incident has given coach crashes added newsworthiness. Fatal road accidents which would normally be ignored by the media become front page headlines.

It is the same with knife crime. A year ago, stabbings bubbled up the news agenda and became part of the national conversation. Violence which had been part of the grim background noise of our society was amplified by the press and so it appeared that young men were dying from knives in unprecedented and terrifying numbers.

However, scrutiny of the figures (and we will get more on Thursday) suggests the "epidemic" was a political and media creation. Each incident is a tragedy, but there is little evidence that such crimes are becoming significantly more frequent.

Nevertheless, sudden concentration upon crimes involving blades prompted the Home Office to launch their Tackling Knives Action Programme with great fanfare. You will almost certainly find that legislation to improve safety on coaches was announced after a whole series of road accident stories appeared in the media.

I am prompted to write about "coach crash syndrome" following last night's shocking story of the young mother jailed for eight years after a court heard of the horrific cruelty she meted out to her two-month-old baby son.

The case, inevitably, is described as having "echoes of the Baby P scandal", and it is right that we recognise that the Haringey tragedy did not herald an end to horrific abuse of children.

There have been a clutch of other national news stories revealing appalling child cruelty and neglect recently - in Doncaster, Dundee, Sheffield and Birmingham. One might be forgiven for imagining that we are witness to a new and appalling wave of brutality.

Here again, though, I suggest we are seeing media interest in ghastly court cases which might previously have been off the press radar.

Latest Ministry of Justice figures for England and Wales show that 493 people were found guilty of child cruelty or neglect in 2007 - 233 men and 260 women. That's hundreds of court cases - enough to provide the newspapers with a story or two every day.

Sixty-nine children were victims of homicide in the most recent annual figures and it is estimated 43 of those youngsters were killed by a parent. That suggests a child dies at the hands of their mum or dad every eight or nine days in England and Wales. And those statistics take no account of a wide range of offence categories which might disguise the brutal maltreatment of a little boy or girl.

One only has to look at the latest figures for children subject to child protection plans [pdf link] to get an idea of the prevalence of serious abuse.

Table showing children subject to child protection plans

These are figures for England alone: 5,000 children are registered as having suffered physical abuse; 2,300 are being monitored because of sexual abuse, shocking numbers that actually reflect a slight decline in recent years.

On Thursday we get Lord Laming's thoughts on how child protection services can improve in England, a review prompted by the Baby P tragedy. I cannot help but wonder, however, why we had to wait for that high-profile case to inspire reflection.

Like coach crashes and stabbings, horrific child abuse cases are neither rare nor new.

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