An account has been given, by a charity and by the Metropolitan Police, of three women who appear to have been held as slaves, in appalling conditions, for at least 30 years in a house in London.
The details are still sparse, since there are likely to be charges against the couple who lived in the house with the three women, and giving too many details could prejudice any prosecution. At the moment it is very difficult to work out what happened. There have been many news broadcasts, interviews with the charity, with government officials, and with spokesmen and campaigners of various sorts.
And there, of course, the story should end. We should wait however many months it takes for the women to tell their story, and then the couple to tell theirs, presumably as part of a prosecution case. At the moment it seems very hard to put forward an innocent explanation, but innocence is what the law must assume.
Naturally, the Press, on behalf of the public, want details and explanations, and very probably pictures of all concerned, plus the precise address of the house, and photos of the interiors, and interviews with neighbours, the latter asking why the did not notice anything.
In the meantime, one of the strands to the story is the psychological effect of such incarceration. The basic effects do not require a psychologist to spell out. However, there are some interesting and perhaps unexpected findings. If a child is abducted even as late as 9 or 10 years of age, then there is a chance that the child will later fail to contact or search for their family. This is usually after prolonged maltreatment and manipulation. After years of such influence, the victim may have access to a telephone, but never use it for the purposes of seeking out their parents. Other victims, usually older, preserve a strong sense of their former lives, and seek escape when it seems safe to do so. A previous post on the Natascha Kampusch case and one on the Cleveland case covers some, but only some, of these issues.
Many relationships have the potential for abuse: caring for children, the elderly, and those who are otherwise vulnerable because of low ability and fragile personalities. There is literature on undue influence, bullying, domestic violence, child abuse and other inhumanities. Some of the campaigners have been called for changes in legislation. That is understandable, but no legislation can bring relief unless there is reliable detection and implementation of laws. All that is tricky, given that people live in houses, and want private lives. So, in every urban street there will be a majority living ordinary and humane lives, a very few doing terrible things, and many wondering how we can tell the difference between the two, without damaging every household in the process.