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Tragedy, learning and active responding

This week marks 40 years since a fire in New Cross tragically took the lives of 13 young people. They were celebrating the birthday of one of the victims. In the face of seeming official indifference to getting to the root cause of what happened, people took to the streets in an early manifestation of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Forty years on the scars remain whilst Steve McQueen in one of his recent Small Axe films broadcast by the BBC before Christmas carefully, joyfully and respectfully recreated the atmosphere of a 1980s house party.

A running theme in this column is a general concern about the wellbeing of young people and in the current pandemic, the way that ambition is being thwarted and dreams shattered. For the victims of the New Cross fire they never got to see what the future would have held for them and those who survived are likely still to be carrying memories that can’t be easily erased. One survivor took his own life two years later.

Even in my mature years I cannot imagine how it would have felt 50 years ago to be suddenly cut off from most direct human contact with friends and having so much uncertainty about the future. True, today, there is some compensation via social media on a scale unimaginable to us boomers in the late nineteen sixties and early seventies. We were contending at times with rationed electricity and three day weeks but we could still go out and our exams, however hard, could still be taken. Life was there for the taking. Often in beige and vibrant orange.

Every week there seems to be a fresh report published warning about the children’s mental health time bomb that is ticking away unchecked as a result of now almost a year of various stages of lockdown. The issue seems overwhelming. The Church has therefore been doing its best to mitigate the worst effects by actively promoting safe means of enabling young people who are linked to it to engage with each other. As this year evolves into whatever shape it takes, the thrust of our safeguarding work will need to keep pace. One key challenge for the Methodist Church will be to determine how best it responds to the external scrutiny offered by the IICSA process. At the same time our approach to safeguarding vulnerable adults in a tentative post-pandemic world will need to take account of the huge growth in reported safeguarding concerns with regard to domestic abuse, financial abuse and neglect. All in all, this shows some careful need to set out our strategic priorities so we are well equipped and resourced to meet the challenges of our changed world.

So how can the deaths of 13 young people in south east London 40 years ago help us shape what we do now? We can also ask how the deaths of 72 people in Grenfell Tower should impact on our thinking. What about the 50% increase in reported mental health concerns amongst children between 2017 and 2020 as reported in the Lancet last week?

Challenge indifference and inactivity, and become a safeguarding activist for something better.

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