Leave those kids alone

The UK government's new child protection proposals treat all children like abuse victims.

Helene Guldberg

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Topics Politics

A green paper published by the UK government on 8 September announced, in the words of prime minister Tony Blair, ‘the most far-reaching reform of child services for 30 years’ (1).

The consultation document was launched in response to the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie in February 2000, as a consequence of the abuse and neglect she suffered at the hands of her great aunt Marie-Therese Kouao and Kouao’s boyfriend Carl Manning. Victoria was left to die, as the judge at Kouao and Manning’s trial put it, ‘a lonely drawn-out death’, her skeletal body covered in 128 injuries.

The circumstances surrounding Victoria Climbie’s death shocked Britain. Not only did her carers inflict horrific levels of abuse, but social services, children’s charities, the police and medical staff persistently failed to do anything to help the child. But this case was so shocking because its combination of abuse and institutional incompetence is so rare. How can it be used as a basis for drawing broader lessons about child protection?

Blair said that the green paper, Every Child Matters, aims to offer ‘security, opportunity, responsibility’ to every youngster, especially those at risk (2). The paper’s recommendations include:

  • integrated teams of health and education professionals, social workers and Connexions advisers based in and around schools and children’s centres;
  • sweeping away legal, technical and cultural barriers to information sharing, so that there can be effective communication between everyone with a responsibility for children;
  • establishing a clear framework of accountability at a national and local level, with the appointment of a children’s director in every local authority responsible for bringing all children’s services together as Children’s Trusts;
  • the appointment of an independent children’s commissioner to champion children’s views (3).

This seems pretty ambitious. But the green paper raises more questions than it answers. What does ‘sweeping away legal, technical and cultural barriers to information sharing’ mean for issues of confidentiality? What will be the impact of blurring the lines of demarcation between different professions upon the integrity of these professions? Which children will be championed, and which of their views? Their views on what is fair and unfair when it comes to what they eat, how much TV they should be able to watch, when they need to go to bed, whether and how they should be disciplined for misbehaving?

Margaret Hodge, the first minister for children – a post created by Blair earlier this year – even intends to commission focus groups of children to help inform policy (on what?). Hodge says: ‘We’ve got to break down the Victorian seen-and-not heard culture.’ I wonder what her response will be if the main policy recommendation the children come up with is that they should only go to school when they feel like it, and should be able to spend as much time as they wish watching TV, playing on their PlayStations or surfing the web. It is hard to imagine what impact the ‘championing of children’s views’ can actually have.

However, at the heart of the green paper is something far more worrying and insidious: the extent to which schools and hospitals are placed at the heart of the process of child protection. Teachers, nurses and doctors are encouraged to be ever-more vigilant in spotting signs of potential abuse in every child.

In effect, education and health workers are encouraged to be suspicious of what goes on in every home, with every bruise having to be investigated. The consequence of this will be the institutionalisation of distrust between different professions, and the further corrosion of the minimal trust that remains between professionals and parents.

David Panter, chief executive of Brighton and Hove city council, which is setting up a Children’s Trust, argues for more holistic care. ‘Most schools have gone as far as they can go in terms of meeting the government’s target in the classroom’, he told the Guardian on 3 September. ‘Headteachers realise that to improve educational performance they’ve got to consider what’s going on outside school, such as child protection issues.’ (4)

Well no, they haven’t got to realise this. Headteachers should concentrate on providing a stimulating educational environment for their children, not turning their teachers into quasi-social-workers (see Back to school, by Jennie Bristow). The problem is not that teachers are ignorant about child abuse, but that they are encouraged to see abuse everywhere.

There is no evidence that increased vigilance from teachers or health professionals or better communication between health workers, teachers, social workers and the police could have saved Victoria Climbie’s life. A number of social workers and police officers were in fact alerted to her possible abuse. They saw her and all failed to act to save her life – and were quite rightly condemned in court for being ‘blindingly incompetent’ (see The missed lesson of the Climbie inquiry, by Helene Guldberg).

The government’s advocacy of ‘joined-up thinking’ is a bizarre response to a case of horrific, but thankfully exceptionally rare, abuse. The real lesson that should be learned from the Climbie case is that those working with children can become so obsessed with finding abuse everywhere that they don’t see it when it is staring them in the face. The child protection industry has already lost sight of the distinction between serious cases of abuse that warrant intervention, and a generalised suspicion about parents’ supposed inadequacies in meeting their children’s every need. The government’s green paper can only make matters worse.

The confusion in the government’s thinking is clear from the statement made by Margaret Hodge on 8 September: ‘Child protection cannot be separated from policies to improve children’s lives more widely. We want to reform children’s services to best protect children from risk of harm. At the same time, we want to shift the balance to prevention by providing greater support to all families.’ (5)

Her proposals include drawing up plans for government helplines that parents can call to seek advice on anything from changing nappies to dealing with drugs; and classes aimed at encouraging parents to take their responsibilities more seriously.

But making all parents believe that they need government-backed training in order to raise their children as stable individuals is likely to cause more problems than offer solutions. These measures can only further undermine parents’ confidence in their abilities to raise their children. The more parents are led to believe that they need prescriptive advice on everything from nappy changing to how to broach difficult subjects like drugs, the more insecure they are going to become about the everyday task of parenting (see Parenting by numbers, by Helene Guldberg).

Education secretary Charles Clarke has claimed that the ‘shameful failings’ surrounding the Victoria Climbie case must never be repeated. He’s right. But the child protection measures being proposed in this green paper are less about protecting a few children from serious neglect and abuse by their carers than making sure all parents measure up to the government’s prescribed standard of parenting. This will benefit nobody.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) Prime Minister’s speech on the launch of the Children’s Green Paper, Every Child Matter, 8 September 2003

(2) Prime Minister’s speech on the launch of the Children’s Green Paper, Every Child Matter, 8 September 2003

(3) Every child matters – Clarke, Boateng and Hodge, Department for Education and Skills, 8 September 2003

(4) Protection package, David Batty, Guardian, 3 September 2003

(5) Every child matters – Clarke, Boateng and Hodge, Department for Education and Skills, 8 September 2003

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Topics Politics