The Observer’s point of view on the failings of the child protection system | Observer Editorial
Twenty years ago Britain faced the horror of what can happen when the child protection system fails. Victoria Climbié, a “happy, smiling and enthusiastic little girl”, was tortured to death for months by her relatives, in the worst case of child abuse ever seen by the professionals who investigated her death. The government ordered an inquiry into how she had been so monumentally failed by the professionals whose job it was to understand the danger she was in. Lord Laming, its chairman, wrote that he hoped Victoria’s memory would act as “a beacon pointing towards the safety and well-being of all children in our society”.
Many changes have been made in the years since the publication of this report. Yet children still lose their lives in the most horrific circumstances as a result of abuse and neglect. Last year convictions were secured for the gruesome murders of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and 16-month-old Star Hobson. Last week, a court ruled that five-year-old Logan Mwangi was murdered by his mother and stepfather, and seven-year-old Hakeem Hussain’s mother was found guilty of his manslaughter. Logan suffered a “slow and painful death”, after months of abuse and being imprisoned in a dungeon-like room. Hakeem endured abject neglect from a mother with a substance abuse problem and died of suffocation in freezing conditions during an asthma attack while high on drugs.
Like Victoria, they all lost their lives as a result of serious child protection breaches. Logan’s teachers noticed disturbing changes in his appearance and behavior in the weeks before his death; social workers and police were aware of his injuries and of death threats against him from the teenager involved in his murder. Her stepfather had previously been convicted of molesting a child. Hakeem had been the subject of a child protection plan prior to his death and days earlier a nurse at his school had predicted that he would die if no action was taken to protect him; his three half-siblings had already been removed from his mother’s care.
There were 206 serious protection incidents involving child deaths in England in 2020. Fifty-six of these deaths occurred as a result of filicide, physical abuse or cruelty or ill-treatment. Child abuse and neglect are not one-time incidents, but patterns of behavior that produce telltale signs that a child is at serious risk. More of these deaths should be preventable with a well-functioning child protection system.
Resourcing has clearly been an issue over the past decade due to government cutbacks and rising costs, largely due to the privatization of child care. It is much more difficult for a social worker to make accurate risk assessments when responsible for more than 30 children each, as is the case in some regions.
But it goes beyond a lack of resources. There is no more complex or intrusive decision the state makes about children than when they should be cared for. It’s an unbearably high stake: leave a child in the care of abusive or neglectful parents and he can suffer terrible harm. It is made more difficult by the dual role of social workers. Their job is to help vulnerable families provide the best possible environment for their children. But they are first and foremost an advocate for children, which may require them to investigate families and make tough decisions in the best interests of the children, but not the parents whom they also care about.
As the Laming Inquiry pointed out, abusive parents can be very deceitful when it comes to covering up the harm they cause their children, and children have died in cases where social workers have been overly willing. to believe the parents and have focused on the needs of the parents to the detriment of that of the child. This makes social work with children one of the most skilled and demanding professions in the public service. We should be investing a lot more in training and developing the people whose responsibility it is to keep vulnerable children safe.
Of course, it would be better if there were fewer children in care because more parents can safely care for their children. The experience of a local authority such as Leeds, which has reduced the number of children in care in a decade by providing support to families at risk, shows that this is possible, even if it requires significant investment and a exceptional leadership, scarce resources in a system where there are too many failing social services. But the cart cannot pass before the horse. Evidence suggests that prompt treatment is associated with better outcomes for children at risk of neglect and abuse. Yet there is a dangerous narrative in parts of child welfare that the system is too quick to care for children where there is no serious risk of harm.
There is little evidence to suggest this is the case, but one of the reasons it persists is that parents who feel they have been wrongly investigated by social services form a more powerful constituency with a louder voice than children whose abuse and neglect may persist. . The deaths of Hakeem Hussein and Logan Mwangi are the latest alarm bells that something is seriously wrong with the child welfare system in this country. Two decades after the murder of Victoria Climbié, we are still far from having ensured the safety and wellbeing of every child growing up in Britain.