Editor's Viewpoint: More must be done to end child cruelty
It is a time of year when tens of thousands of children in Northern Ireland are looking forward to the festive season in the certainty that it will be a time of joy and happiness.
But sadly, there is a darker side to this.
Shocking figures from the NSPCC show that in the last year there were 500 child cruelty and neglect offences, more than double the total just five years earlier.
These are not offences to be taken lightly. Reports to police included extreme cases of parents or carers deliberately neglecting, assaulting, abandoning or exposing their child to serious harm and unnecessary suffering.
It is beyond the comprehension of most parents how anyone could mistreat a child, one of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Neglect is a huge problem according to the statistics. There are 974 children on the child protection register for concerns involving neglect. This total accounts for 59% of all children on the register.
Understanding why there has been such a dramatic increase in cruelty and neglect cases is difficult. Part of the reason may be greater reporting of cases but it can also include greater pressures on parents in an increasingly pressurised world. Also, some parents are ill-equipped to look after children due to personal shortcomings.
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Shocking as the figures are, they don't show the full picture because statistics from the Southern Trust are not included in the register total.
The reasons behind the increase in cases need to be explored more thoroughly if the number of children at risk is to decrease. And, of course, any subsequent action must be of a multi-agency nature involving organisations like the PSNI, social services and the justice system.
Friends and neighbours can also play an important role as they can often be the first to notice any signs of neglect or cruelty and can alert the appropriate authorities.
And help is always at hand through the NSPCC and its Childline service which is operative 24 hours a day. But the charity needs help from the public to fund its work and its Christmas appeal is a worthy cause which could be the best present anyone could give to a young person in peril.
It means there is somewhere they can contact for help and support. This is vital in helping to break the cycle of neglect or cruelty which is an unacceptable blight on our society against children who cannot defend themselves.