The massacre of the innocents is one of the most disturbing stories in the Bible. In the
second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, King Herod, frightened that his power will be
threatened by the newborn Jesus, orders the killing of all boys in or near Bethlehem aged
two or under. Mary and Joseph flee with Jesus to Egypt, but other infants are slaughtered.
The author quotes a passage from the prophet Jeremiah describing wailing and loud
lamentation as mothers mourn their slain children.
Even in today’s world, large numbers of children die unnecessarily due to war, poverty and
environmental destruction. Many others survive but endure considerable suffering, even
in ‘rich’ countries.
Drastic cuts imposed by the UK government will result in a sharp rise in child poverty,
the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates. In addition, children’s services run by local
authorities are already severely overstretched in many areas, and the situation is likely to
become much worse.
Many people have mixed feelings about children’s services, which is one of the reasons
why the grim situation has not triggered widespread protests. In the past, sometimes social
services have indeed been heavy-handed, and – as in any other profession – some social
workers are better at their jobs than others. However, in many cases, services for children
in need provided or funded by councils, play a crucial part in improving the life-chances of
children whose families are struggling to cope, and in protecting those at risk of harm.
Perhaps some of the hostility to children’s services, fuelled by sections of the media, is
intensified by the uneasiness some feel about the vulnerability of children, and also adults’
sense that their homes are among the few places where they exercise authority. Yet in
reality, it is rare for children to be taken into care: usually councils and specialist voluntary
organisations work hard to support children in the settings where they live.
And parents who are struggling to deal with illness, bereavement, housing problems or
other difficulties, are often only too glad to get help. Disabled children and their families too, may need skilled support and vigorous advocacy at certain times to make sure they are
not pushed to the margins.
This not to downplay the role that extended families, neighbours, youth workers and
teachers already have in helping children in need. But sometimes dedicated personnel
with the time and skills to provide in-depth support are also required. It is not always easy
to comfort a young child whose mother has just died of AIDS and has HIV herself; help
a deaf and epileptic toddler to maximise her potential; provide a safe environment for
an abused adolescent who has begun to display sexualised behaviour towards younger
children or to support a young father just out of prison who wants to be a caring parent and good role-model.
In many areas, the safety net provided by children’s services already has gaping holes.
It may end up badly torn as a result of the cuts, unless people of all faiths and none, who
care about children’s welfare and society’s future, take urgent action.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia Associate. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice.