Our children must be protected
Our story today that a 12-year-old west Belfast girl is expecting a baby is one that will send a shudder through parents everywhere. They will have sympathy for the girl, herself only a child, and for her shocked family and they will give thanks that they do not have to deal with a similar situation.
While this is an exceptional case - there have only been three recorded births to 12-year-olds in Northern Ireland in the past 40 years - 66 girls aged 14 and under have given birth here since 2002.
Parents today have to cope with the increasing sexualisation of society with even pre-pubescent girls being targeted by a pop culture that glorifies sexual behaviour. Throw into the mix the impact of the internet, where anything goes, and the peer pressure that can be put on impressionable young people through social media. They are constantly bombarded with images and messages which they can barely process properly given their callow youth.
That may set a context for what has happened, but it will do nothing to lessen the impact on the girl and her family.
They will be faced with difficult decisions in the coming weeks and months and will need every support possible from professionals in social services.
One can barely imagine what that little girl and her family are going through at this time. The girl, in particular, must be frightened of the consequences and anxious about her future. If a child is born she will need the on-going love and assistance of her parents and any older siblings as she tries to come to terms with being a mother.
The fact that a 19-year-old man has been interviewed by police about the pregnancy will only add to the family's problems.
If he is found to be the father then he can, and should, face serious criminal charges. It is an offence to engage in any sexual activity with a child.
Given the apparent circumstances of this case it would be right for the courts to take very strong action.
A strong message needs to be sent out that society will not tolerate any abuse of children, for that is essentially what has happened here.
There are laws in place to protect young people and where those are breached then deterrent penalties should be imposed.
To do otherwise is to fail girls like this one, whose life has been so utterly altered.