‘Baby P’: don’t turn this tragedy into a policy

Let’s stop the government from using this case as a springboard for spreading suspicion. PLUS: Ken McLaughlin on ‘scattergun social work’.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

As I write, the world wide web in the UK and beyond is filling up with breaking news stories about the heart-rending case of ‘Baby P’. The 17-month-old boy’s mother had already pleaded guilty to causing or allowing his death, but was cleared of murder on a judge’s directions. Yesterday, 11 November, her 32-year-old boyfriend and another man were convicted at the Old Bailey in London on the same charge.

The computer-generated photograph of this poor baby’s battered head that has accompanied some of the news reports is surely unnecessary, when reading about a catalogue of abuse that included eight fractured ribs and a broken back. What makes the story more awful is that the little boy was already on the London council of Haringey’s ‘at risk’ register, yet ‘over eight months of abuse, during which he was seen 60 times by health or social workers, the boy suffered more than 50 injuries’ (1).

Recriminations are already flying, as are comparisons with the landmark Victoria Climbié case in 2000. Eight-year-old Victoria suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her guardians, finally ending up in a hospital intensive care unit where she died with 128 separate injuries to her body. Here, too, it was Haringey council that failed to intervene in time. The Climbié case prompted an inquiry, headed by Lord Laming, into how the council had failed to act upon such a clear case of child abuse; and a chain of policy measures was put into motion to stop a case like this from ever happening again.

Now it has happened again, and guess what? The government’s response has been (again) to announce an independent review of child protection services across the country. But if anybody wanted to learn one lesson from this case, and from Victoria Climbie before it, it should be this: when governments politicise such tragic events, the outcome is worse than no good.

Victoria Climbié and the aftermath

Lord Laming’s report into the circumstances surrounding Victoria Climbié’s death was released in January 2003, and he was uncompromising about the failings of the child protection authorities. He noted that there had been ‘no fewer than 12 key occasions when the relevant services had the opportunity to successfully intervene in the life of Victoria’ – yet none did. ‘The extent of the failure to protect Victoria was lamentable’, he wrote. ‘Tragically, it required nothing more than basic good practice being put into operation. This never happened.’ (2)

The failure of the child protection authorities to follow ‘basic good practice’ goes a long way to explaining how professionals charged with preventing child abuse can miss severe malnourishment, cigarette burns and the other multiple injuries that Victoria sustained. A further explanation was provided by Helene Guldberg on spiked at the time of the Laming report: ‘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.’ (3) If those many individuals and agencies who had come into contact with the little girl had exercised more human judgement, the outcome could have been very different.

Unfortunately, what the government wanted to learn from the Climbié case was a rather different lesson: which was that her death should be used as a springboard for the national reorganisation, not only of child protection services, but of the principle of child protection. To that end, it set in motion a major policy that essentially reorganises how all adults – parents, teachers, doctors, social workers and members of the community – relate to all children. This was the blanket policy banally called Every Child Matters.

Every Child Matters

How could an inquiry that began with a case of extreme cruelty and murder end up with this:

‘The government’s aim is for every child, whatever their background or their circumstances, to have the support they need to: Be healthy; Stay safe; Enjoy and achieve; Make a positive contribution; Achieve economic wellbeing…’

…as though Victoria Climbie’s suffering came from eating too much chocolate and not being read to at home?

And how could the failure of trained social workers to spot signs of extreme abuse that were right under their noses lead to this:

‘[O]rganisations involved with providing services to children – from hospitals and schools, to police and voluntary groups – will be teaming up in new ways, sharing information and working together, to protect children and young people from harm and help them achieve what they want in life…’

…as though the personnel who came into contact with Victoria simply lacked the right volume of notes?

As a result of the inquiry into Victoria Climbié’s death, all children are to have their details registered on a national database (called ContactPoint), just in case they need some kind of state protection in the future. From childminders and nurseries through to secondary and tertiary education, teachers and other childcare workers are tasked with worrying about all aspects of a child’s wellbeing – healthy eating, staying safe, and so on. In case parents should worry that they are being sidelined, there is also a document called Every Parent Matters, which sternly reminds us of our duties in helping children to read and not smoking during pregnancy. I could go on – but you can read it all in breathtaking, mind-numbing detail for yourself here.

In short, the government politicised Victoria Climbié’s death, using this tragedy as a springboard to reform the relationship between parents and the authorities, and reducing parents to mere ‘partners’ in the child-rearing process. This policy was never going to prevent the rare but dreadful cases of abuse that really are a cause for concern – indeed, it is possible that a policy that teaches all practitioners to look for the most minor signs of potential abuse in every parental oversight, be it a failure to provide carrots for lunchtime or fruit for breakfast, makes the job of child protection workers harder, by distracting them and burying them in bureaucracy. When social workers are trained to consider every parent suspicious, and all sorts of parenting techniques as potentially abusive, they may become distracted from the task of spotting real abuse. What Every Child Matters has done is to institutionalise the idea that all families should be placed under greater scrutiny by an expanded group of professionals, in order to ensure that they care for their children enough, and in the appropriate kind of way.

By shamelessly taking advantage of the outrage caused by rare and terrible cases of abuse, the government’s policy presumes that there is some connection between children being denied their five-fruit-and-veg-a-day and babies having their heads beaten in. In contrast, by setting in motion official investigations into the failings of the state to intervene when families really are failing, the government has presumed that there is no connection between its demand that social workers and others spot child abusers everywhere, and their failure to see and deal with real horrors on their doorstep. So after ‘Baby P’, please, let the government get real. The last thing that will help is a policy called ‘Every Child Really Matters’.

Jennie Bristow runs the website, Parents With Attitude and is co-author of Licensed to Hug: How Child Protection Policies Are Poisoning the Relationship Between the Generations and Damaging the Voluntary Sector published by Civitas, 2008. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

SCATTERGUN SOCIAL WORK
by Ken McLaughlin

No one can fail to be shocked by the horrific injuries that Baby P sustained – and it is difficult for many of us to understand how such a catalogue of injuries could have been missed by professionals. No doubt an inquiry into this case will examine these issues in depth. Unfortunately, it is impossible to prevent all such cases, and care also needs to be taken to prevent this individual tragedy, horrific as it is, from leading to changes in policy and practice that can undermine existing areas where professionals are working well in very difficult circumstances. One case does not necessarily require wholesale change.

Many officials and commentators have understandably reacted with shock and bewilderment to the Baby P case. A telling comment came from Beverley Hughes, the UK children’s minister. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she said that social workers need to take a more sceptical approach; this was clearly a reference to the fact that the social workers seem to have been too trusting of the version of events given by Baby P’s mother.

Hughes certainly has a point, and in cases where there are concerns over a vulnerable person’s welfare and safety it can indeed be naive and dangerous to take people’s accounts at face value. Unfortunately, it is the government’s promotion of such a sceptical and suspicious outlook on to society in general that inadvertently inhibits frontline workers from doing their jobs properly. It also has a detrimental effect on children’s safety in the wider community.

For example, at a time when frontline services are seriously understaffed and under-resourced, an inordinate amount of time and money is spent on obtaining criminal records checks on virtually anyone who comes into contact with a vulnerable person – the definition of which has become so wide that almost all of you reading this article could be legally defined as ‘vulnerable’. Hughes’ healthy scepticism here leads to everyone being seen as a risk, rather than those for whom there is evidence and/or suspicion that they may indeed pose a risk.

Similarly, social workers are increasingly to be found in schools. Not, as in the past, due to concerns over a particular child, but because all children are seen as requiring some input at various points of their lives. In addition, the General Social Care Council, the regulatory body for social work and social care, spends more time policing the individual lifestyle of social care workers than it does sorting out the structural and organisational factors that can undermine frontline workers’ ability to do their jobs. These are examples of a scattergun approach to social work and risk-prevention, which has replaced a targeted and appropriate response.

In political and policy circles today we are all seen as vulnerable (at risk) and/or potentially dangerous (as a risk). In such a climate, resources are diverted from where they are needed most (how much is wasted on needless criminal records checks each year?). And with everyone viewed as a potential risk, not only do we undermine community cohesion – which is a crucial factor in child welfare – but we also spend so much time suspecting everyone that we become inured to those instances where a healthy suspicion is, indeed, justified.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His book Social Work, Politics and Society: From Radicalism to Orthodoxy is published by Policy Press.

Previously on spiked

Helene Guldberg pondered the missed lesson of the Victoria Climbié inquiry and criticised the nostalgia about childhoods past. Brendan O’Neill asked if there’s a Josef Fritzl living on your street. Heather Piper provided the truth about satanic abuse. Mick Hume examined the increasingly strange case of Madeleine McCann. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

(1) Investigation called after child murder case with echoes of Climbie, The Times November 11, 2008

(2) The Victoria Climbié Inquiry, January 2003

(3) The missed lesson of the Climbié inquiry, by Helene Guldberg, 31 January 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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