The missed lesson of the Climbie inquiry

Child protection officials are so obsessed with seeing abuse everywhere that they miss it when it is under their noses.

Helene Guldberg

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UK health secretary Alan Milburn insists that lessons must be learned from the case of the murdered child abuse victim, Victoria Climbie, in February 2000.

But the only lesson worth learning from this terrible case is that child protection officers have become so obsessed with finding abuse everywhere that they cannot see it when it is under their noses. And you don’t need a 15-month inquiry to appreciate that.

Eight-year-old Victoria died from horrific abuse and neglect at the hands of her great aunt Marie-Therese Kouao and her great aunt’s boyfriend Carl Manning. The child was seen by a number of social workers and police officers before she died, but each and every one of them failed to act to save her life.

The inquiry into Victoria’s death, chaired by Lord Laming, is damning not only of the four London boroughs that dealt with the case, but also of the police child protection teams, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and the doctors and nurses who were alerted to the potential abuse. Laming states: ‘I remain amazed that nobody in any of the key agencies had the presence of mind to follow what are relatively straightforward procedures.’

Clearly the social services and police, trained in identifying and dealing with child abuse, failed to pick up on, or act upon, what must surely be one of the worst and most obvious cases of abuse in recent years – despite having had 12 separate opportunities to do so. How could this appalling catalogue of incompetence on the part of those purporting to protect Victoria be allowed to happen?

It is not as though society worries too little about child abuse. Indeed, there is an army of child protection officers, care workers, high-profile children’s charities and police units, aided by National Health Service workers and teachers, all of whom are trained to spot ‘hidden’ signs of potential abuse in children, and to act upon it at the earliest possible opportunity. But as the Climbie case indicates, this is part of the problem.

When those charged with protecting children are obsessed with spotting ‘hidden’ signs of child abuse anywhere and everywhere, there is a danger that they will miss the most blindingly obvious signs. And when child protection becomes an industry, professionalised and bureaucratised, other people in society are actively discouraged from acting on their instincts to protect a child at risk.

Unfortunately, this is not the official lesson that has been learned from the Victoria Climbie inquiry. Instead, a raft of recommendations – 108 in total – have been put forward, involving a massive shake-up of the welfare services. These include:

  • the creation of a National Agency for children and families to bring all care agencies under one roof;
  • the appointment a Children’s Commissioner who will report to a ministerial committee;
  • the setting up of a national children’s database recording any contact between children under 16 and a member of the key services;
  • more appropriate training of social services staff;
  • the introduction of new social work degrees.

But these measures, if anything, are likely to make matters worse. The expansion of the child protection industry, with its increasing centralisation and heightened profile, is likely to fuel the obsession with child abuse. Social workers and the police are increasingly losing sight of the distinction between serious cases of abuse that warrant intervention, and a generalised suspicion about the existence of child abuse in every family.

At a time when the definition of child abuse has expanded to include everything from shouting at your child to sending them to their room, and when teachers and social workers are encouraged to be ever-more aware of spotting signs of potential abuse, it is perhaps not surprising that they sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees.

If child protection officers need ‘more appropriate training’ in order to recognise abuse in a malnourished child – covered in bruises, cigarette burns and open sores, included a belt-buckle indented on her body and hammer blows to her toes – then children at risk will never receive the protection that they need. And no amount of ‘appropriate training’ can compensate for situations in which child protection professionals put their own safety before the welfare of the children they are supposed to be protecting.

In Victoria Climbie’s case, a police officer, PC Karen Jones of the Met’s Child Protection Team, had arranged to visit her at home after she had been discharged from hospital. But PC Jones had heard that Victoria had had scabies. In fact, Victoria had scars from the abuse she had suffered: but because PC Jones was scared of catching scabies, she failed to visit the flat (1).

Or look at another recent inquiry, into the death of the two-year-old Ainlee Walker, after sustaining a horrific catalogue of injuries at the hands of her parents in their east London home. Again, the inquiry damned all those involved in the case: social workers and the police had failed to act because they were ‘paralysed’ by fear of the family.

It seems it is easier to raise suspicion about innocent parents and carers, than to deal with perpetrators of appalling, and what should be unmissable, torture.

A number of adults who came into contact with Victoria, including neighbours, raised concerns about the child’s welfare and the likelihood of abuse. But the transformation of child protection from everyday acts of human compassion to an industry of professionals actively discourages people from intervening in situations themselves.

A climate of suspicion that encourages us to see potential abuse in every home, and see every stranger as a potential threat to children, can only undermine the spontaneous human compassion and contact that could have saved Victoria’s life.

It was not the absence of a highly visible, vigilant and centralised child protection industry that allowed Victoria to die a lonely drawn-out death. It was the lack of two basic human instincts: compassion and common sense.

(1) The people who failed Victoria, Daily Telegraph, 9 December 2001

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