Hospitals & Social Workers ‘Failing To Spot Child Abuse’

Doctors and social workers are failing children who end up in hospital after abuse or neglect by their parents, a government-funded inquiry has found.

{mosimage}Some are discharged from casualty departments and allowed to go home, despite suspicious injuries such as a black eye or broken arm, because they are not identified as being at risk, states a report by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) charity.

Doctors and nurses say specialist social workers are overworked and often reluctant to intervene, even if it is thought children are likely to suffer further harm.

Social workers, for their part, told researchers they were ‘frustrated with medical staff who were not prepared to make a decision about whether a child’s injury was accidental or not’ because they did not want to be the one that ‘labelled’ a family as abusive.

The NCB report says that many hospitals and social workers have not implemented changes brought in after the horrific abuse and murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie in 2000. It comes as new figures show that hospitals in England treat on average 471 children every week who have sustained deliberate injuries. There were 24,497 such cases among under-18s in 2005-06, involving injuries such as a black eye or broken arm. They involved a total of 21,334 children, some of whom were seen more than once. The identities of those thought responsible for the assaults were not recorded, but they include other young people as well as parents, relatives and childminders.

The study paints a picture of tension, mistrust and disputes between professionals who are meant to raise the alarm if they suspect abuse or neglect. Its findings indicate that lessons have not been learnt widely enough since staff at two London hospitals were criticised by Lord Laming’s inquiry in 2003 into the Climbie case over failures which meant that two opportunities to protect her were missed when she came in for treatment.

Last week James Craig, 26, and Sharma Dookhooah, 25, of Romford, Essex, were each jailed for five years after admitting causing or allowing the death of their 10-month-old son Neo. Their Old Bailey trial heard that there had been a series of failings by police, doctors and social workers who knew about the boy’s ‘derelict’ home life but did not intervene, despite a number of warnings.

The NCB’s year-long survey of child protection arrangements at 130 hospitals also found that fewer than half had a dedicated team of children’s social workers based on-site, even though the Department of Health said in 2003 that they should. ‘Some children could slip through the net because of that. They could have their injury treated but their underlying abuse may go unnoticed and not investigated,’ said Di Hart, one of the two co-authors of the report, A Shared Responsibility: Safeguarding arrangements between hospitals and children’s social services

Dame Mary Marsh, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: ‘No child should be left to suffer because their abuse has been missed at hospitals. This report indicates that improvements need to be made to the way hospitals and children’s services work together to protect vulnerable children.’

The NSPCC says that one child is killed by their parents every week. Children continue to be abused, and mistakes are still made by hospitals and social workers in identifying abuse, despite a shake-up of procedures since Victoria Climbie’s killing. In September, Sumairia Parveen and her boyfriend Abid Ikram, of west London, were jailed for nine years for torturing Ikram’s 17-month-old son Tahla to death in 2006. Doctors repeatedly failed to detect the abuse even though Tahla was burnt with cigarettes, suffered multiple broken bones and had his leg sliced open.

A spokesman from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which is responsible for child welfare, said: ‘In response to the Victoria Climbie inquiry, we have substantially strengthened the framework of law, guidance and supporting systems to help keep children safe, and that work is continuing. Tragically we know some children still suffer abuse and neglect. The Children Act 2004 also put an explicit duty on NHS hospitals and other local services to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.’

Local safeguarding boards, with NHS, police and local authority representatives, were established across England last year to improve child protection systems and review child deaths.