Will we ever learn? Child protection in England and Wales

The UK’s disturbing history of child protection can be described as nothing more than tragic and scandalous. Since 1944 it is guaranteed that you will only ever hear of, or see in the media, social work when there has been a fatality in the most tragic and dire circumstances. The timeline spanning nearly 70 years, is scarred by avoidable child death or uncovered systemic institutional abuse. Each scar changes the nation’s perception, questions our accountability and improves our practice. And yet, with recent cases coming to the public’s attention, it is obvious that we continue to make the same, simple mistakes.

On the 28th of June 1944, Dennis O’Neill, who had been in the care of Newport Borough Council for nearly six years, was placed into foster care in a farmhouse in Shropshire, England. Seven months later, Dennis was dead, just shy of his thirteenth birthday. He tragically died of a heart attack following a brutal beating to his chest and back with a stick by his foster-father, Reginald Gough. Weighing in at just over four stone, Dennis had septic ulcers on his feet and severely chapped legs. His stomach was empty. He had been so undernourished that he had to suck a cow’s udder for milk. The night before he died, he was made to stand watching other people eat a meal, whilst he was starved of food. Stripped naked, he was tied with rope to a bench and beaten with a stick until his legs were blue and swollen and he was unable to stand. He was then locked in a cubbyhole.

Poor record-keeping and filing, unsuitable appointments, lack of partnership working, resource concerns, failing to act on warning signs, weak supervision and a failure of communication – the described failings – were not buried with Dennis O’Neill. These failings were to feature regularly in inquiries held into the death or abuse of children in care for the next 69 years – including that of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly.

In 1973, Maria Colwell died as victim to her step-father beatings. The beatings were so vicious; she suffered brain damage, a fractured rib, black eyes, extensive external bruising and internal injuries. After the public outcry and media pressure over her death, the Government finally conceded to set up a full public inquiry – this being the first of its kind. It unwittingly set-up the pattern for all subsequent inquiries. Indeed, inquiries have become the accepted means of dealing with death and abuse characterised by neglect, cruelty and distress.
Each inquiry’s findings became the precursor of national or local policies designed to make sure history wasn’t repeated. But repeat it has. Repetition in subsequent recommendations is noted as far back as the 1980 Carly Taylor inquiry duly noted: “Many of the recommendations are largely repetitious of others and it would be pointless to repeat them. We would only say that, if they had been studied and followed by those concerned at all levels in this case, it is reasonable to assume that the troubles with which we have been concerned might well not have occurred.”

Twenty-eight years later was the death of Peter Connelly in 2008 and the media onslaught damned the competency of Child Protection in the UK. An episode of ‘social service bashing’ ensued, rendering them ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’. Social workers and local authorities are rarely commended for the often unseen and highly valuable work they conduct to safeguard those who are most vulnerable.

And the reaction? The all-important inquiry, more bureaucracy and a lowered threshold to initiate care proceedings and remove a child from their home.

This article aims to introduce the discussions that have fuelled the debate in the light of Baby P. Is it that our children are being too readily taken away since this horrible incident? Is it that they were not taken too readily in the first place? Or, is it a culture that is instilled through the interpretation of policy and legislation?

The public perception, reflected in Government policies responding to the complex and distressing ordeals that some children must endure, have been vast and often in-depth. Reform of children’s services is often initiated by high-profile and severe cases that are brought to public attention by the media.

By evaluating the child protection process, from referral, to social services, to the final court hearing, reveals a severe hidden and fatal flaw in the system which causes social workers to sometimes gravely overlook the most devastating of cases. This ‘overlooking’ is clear in the recent serious case reviews of Hamzah Khan, Keanu Williams and Daniel Pelka. This flaw should be eradicated.

However, with a lower threshold, how do we not know that the publicly bruised profession of Child Protection is removing children from their natural birth parents unjustly? After all, a study by Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advice and Support Service) in 2012 revealed that ‘Baby P’ or ‘Peter Connelly’ are mentioned in 47.9 per cent of survey responses and the number of court applications to remove a child has risen by 61.6 per cent since 2007-08. These figures show that the ‘Baby P Effect’, or rather, the effect of hindsight, has produced a fundamental shift in child protection practice. What the figures do not reveal is the number of children that have been placed into care, but if this is on a similar scale, then it could be understood that the system is now abusing children by unjustly removing them when more could be done to support them in their natural home. Child Protection is an act of consensus in society to stop those individuals who abuse children by an act of agency. But also, importantly, that same consensus includes any institutional injustice from a paranoid, overbearing State.

In conclusion, the system may be better addressed for protecting children by offering prevention and intervention, not proscription and then reaction, so that protection is appropriately and adequately positioned to catch those who are most vulnerable. By looking at other international examples, we can see how prevention can not only save money, but promote the health, wealth and futures of every individual. Prevention is the most effective way to treat the UK’s ageing societal problem of inter-generational dysfunction; prevent more systemic failures and promote the lives of those most in need.

2 responses to “Will we ever learn? Child protection in England and Wales”

  1. Adam says:

    I thought this was a very good piece. I wonder whether people could learn more from the NHS and how it safeguards children.

    • Breon says:

      Apologies for the delay in my reply, I have been away travelling for a few weeks. The NHS safeguards children by assessment conducted by a team of paediatrics. Should the assessment of the situation, based on what evidence is brought to light, hint that the child could possibly be a victim of neglect or abuse, then the paediatricians will contact social services. The referral to social services will trigger an investigation. Basically, the NHS is a point of contact service, the same for any other service which comes into contact with children.

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