Baby P Case: Child Protection Experts’ Responses

Two men were today found guilty of causing or allowing the death of a 17-month-old baby in a case which echoes the murder of Victoria Climbié. Child protection experts and politicians have issued the following responses

This is a very tragic case. Social workers, health visitors, doctors and nurses worked hard to support the family, seeing [Baby P] 60 times in eight months. We were unaware of the mother’s boyfriend and shocked at the evidence in court about the extent of the deceit used to cover up his presence in the home. We put in place extensive arrangements to protect the child, with a parenting course for his mother, a family friend to help with his care and a childminder to look after him and report any suspicious injuries. The mother seemed to be working with us. The independent review is clear that on only one occasion – two days before he died, when he saw the paediatrician – might the outcome have been different. The key lessons for everyone are that we must be much more vigilant about the risk of deception, challenging again and again the perceptions of professionals.
Sharon Shoesmith, chair of Haringey local safeguarding children board

This is a very tragic case which makes all of us question how someone could do such a terrible thing to a child and set out to deceive the very people trying to help. Safeguarding children is undoubtedly the government’s top priority and we expect it to be the top priority for local agencies too. In response to Lord Laming’s Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié we introduced fundamental reforms to help keep children safe. Local areas are also now required to review every case where a child is harmed or killed, and neglect or abuse is suspected. We will be considering carefully the serious case review and whether there needs to be a further investigation of child protection procedures and practices among local agencies in Haringey. In addition, to ensure the reforms that the government set out following Lord Laming’s inquiry are being implemented systematically, Ed Balls and I have today asked Lord Laming to prepare an independent report of progress being made across the country. It is vital that everyone caring for children, in whatever capacity, is on their guard; alert to the possibility of risk; strives continuously for the best possible practice; and sees the world through the eyes of the child.
Beverley Hughes, the children’s minister

While this case is clearly an individual tragedy, it is not a symptom of a broken child protection system. It does not reflect the dramatic steps forward that have been made in child protection practice, policy and procedures in recent years. The systems and professional development of staff that are needed to ensure good standards of practice are constantly being developed and improved. The development of common frameworks for reporting and recording, combined with improving standards of professional practice, are having a direct impact on the outcomes for the most vulnerable young people. This work is complex and difficult and sadly we cannot eliminate risk or the miscalculation of risk. This case illustrates this and shows that we must work to ensure the highest standards of service in every case. We must continue with our relentless determination to support and develop the whole workforce. Sadly there will be those who will continue to kill and seriously harm children. Not every tragedy can be prevented but we must continue to strive to do so – we owe this child and those who loved him that much.
Maggie Atkinson, president, Association of Directors of Children’s Services

There has been a failure on the part of agencies to protect a child on the child protection register and the unthinkable has happened. I am not defending the undefendable, but with the best will in the world, social workers have had to cope with unprecedented changes since the Victora Climbié case and Lord Laming’s recommendations and struggle with staffing shortages. There have also been greater expectations that this wouldn’t happen again, that with the Every Child Matters agenda they could do do more to protect children in greatest need. It will unfortunate if the 100,000 social workers across the UK are judged by one very bad case. What they need to enjoy is the confidence of very vulnerable people. This will knock that confidence. Laming said accountability should go to the top of an organisation and I expect that this will be looked at rather than focusing on individual social workers.
Ian Johnston, chief executive, British Association of Social Workers

The striking thing about what is known about this case is how skillfully deceitful the mother and male cohabitants were in concealing the child’s injuries. This is known in the child protection literature as “disguised compliance”, where superficial cooperation is a front for concealing abuse. What social workers need is the knowledge and skills to enable them to detect such manipulation and use good authority, while building trusting, helping relationships. And far more attention needs to be given to the implications of the fact that where this really difficult work goes on is usually in the child’s home. There are many examples in child death cases from the past 30 years of children having injuries which were not picked up in the home because social workers did not walk across the room and touch or engage with the child. Yet the policy and practice momentum is primarily about creating new systems for improving inter-professional cooperation. The energy devoted to organisational reforms such as children’s trusts and the emphasis on service user rights in social work education must no longer be allowed to divert attention from providing social workers with the knowledge and supports that are essential to performing such personally and professionally demanding work.
Harry Ferguson, professor of social work, University of Nottingham

Progress has been made in protecting children and young people, but sadly children are still seriously hurt and killed by those who are responsible for them. We all have a responsibility to work to reduce these tragedies. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health sets standards and provides training to ensure that there are competent and confident paediatricians – from junior doctors to consultants – who are able to detect and manage these problems. We need a robust and properly resourced system. Frontline professionals need the time and support to carry out this difficult work. It takes longer than a straightforward health consultation. Children and young people need parents who know how to care for them. But in times of difficulty, we as a society need to provide families with support so that ultimately we can protect children from harm.
Dr Patricia Hamilton, president, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

Despite swathes of legislation following the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, children at risk continue to fall through the net. The mechanics of child protection in this country are still not working. This second high-profile death in Haringey has been allowed to happen despite the fact that the child was on the child protection register. It is also clear the different agencies are still not listening to each other or working effectively in unison. No amount of child protection legislation is a substitute for properly trained and resourced professionals at the sharp end, who spend time with vulnerable children rather than in front of computer screens constantly collecting data and ticking boxes. There must be a full independent inquiry into how vulnerable children are being failed in Haringey and elsewhere given that child abuse numbers remain alarmingly high eight years after Victoria Climbié’s murder.
Tim Loughton, the shadow children’s minister

In the latest child abuse death in Haringey, the detail that is most startling to me is the rarity of home visits and the limited time spent with the mother and child. Before we heap blame on the front line worker, we need to ask what priorities she is taught to follow. Since the Climbié report in 2003, efforts to improve practice have focused on administrative tasks. Workers are told which forms to complete in specified timescales, what meetings to attend, what targets to meet. However, the series of child abuse inquiries since the 1970s has repeatedly shown that the key problems in child protection are the difficulties of engaging with families in extreme emotional states, of keeping a level of suspicion while trying to form a constructive working relationship, and of making risk assessments and decisions with limited evidence. Skill, experience, and reflective supervision are the key elements needed for good practice. The government’s efforts to improve child protection have been misdirected and this child’s death shows the consequences.
Eileen Munro, reader in social policy, London School of Economics

The horrific cruelty inflicted on this defenceless infant is shocking. One cannot imagine the excruciating pain and sadness this little boy suffered before he died. Even with substantial child protection reforms, spotting the danger to an individual child remains fraught with difficulty – especially when the child is too young to speak out. Abusers will lie about what they have done and cover up their crimes. They may threaten and intimidate social workers and other professionals to stop them discovering the truth. All those working with vulnerable children must ask the right questions and make the right call for the sake of the child. They need sufficient skill, experience and courage to challenge parents and carers effectively. And they need enough time to spend with families and proper support to do their investigations. Dedicated professionals successfully protect thousands of children every year. But frankly they are being overwhelmed by the scale of child abuse. Supporting them properly as they, and the children they look after, deserve is an issue for the government and the nation and everyone has a responsibility for acting on their concerns about a child. This will build on the reforms to the system to help make our child protection arrangements fully fit for the children they were built to protect.
Wes Cuell, acting chief executive, NSPCC

Protecting children from harm is one of the most important jobs undertaken by councils, who have teams of committed staff to carry it out. In recent years there have been improvements in child protection procedures, including an increased level of cooperation between organisations dedicated to safeguarding youngsters. This particular case is a tragedy for all those involved, but it is a sad truth that protecting every child at every moment of the day is almost impossible while there are adults determined to do harm. These cases are deeply saddening and regrettable, but there are significant numbers of children who have been removed from potentially dangerous situations thanks to the vigilance and professionalism of social and healthcare workers, and these staff should be allowed to continue their work. Efforts to make the child protection system as effective as possible must continue and we must reflect and learn the lessons from such cases, but knee-jerk reactions to individual tragedies need to be avoided.
David Bellotti, vice chair, children and young people’s board, Local Government Association