Media Witch-Hunt Over Baby P Puts More Children At Risk
The horrific case of Baby P, who died after abuse and neglect in Haringey, north London, has provoked headline-grabbing stories. The newspapers have pored over the gruesome details of his death and called for the sacking of social workers involved in the case.
Much of the coverage has escalated into a witch-hunt. The rabid Sun newspaper has launched a petition calling for workers to be sacked, naming and showing pictures of the social workers involved, and encouraging people to phone up with information about them.
Within hours of the court finding Baby P’s mother and two other adults guilty of causing the child’s death, government ministers were damning the failures of staff in all agencies and mounting an investigation into Haringey council’s children’s services.
Yet any reading of the serious case review conducted after Baby P’s death begs many questions about the response to the case and the wider issues it raises.
Baby P died, tortured and neglected, of a broken back that was undetected in the examination by a skilled paediatrician two days earlier.
His mother was reported as always being helpful and compliant with child protection planning and had apparently cared adequately for her children until her separation from her partner in July 2006.
Indeed, solicitors concluded there were insufficient grounds to meet the legal thresholds for court protection just weeks before Baby P’s death in August 2007.
The year-long case review found evidence of some good multi-agency working and “numerous examples of good practice” – facts the tabloid press refused to accept.
But clearly this was a highly complex and very challenging case. It also sheds some light on the extreme pressure that social workers and health services are under.
Baby P’s developmental health assessment took five months to initiate – a third of his lifetime – despite having a child protection priority. Was this because of a lack of resources in the health service?
Families where there is social work involvement are usually in a condition of chaos, overwhelmingly caused by deprivation and lack of social support that creates isolation and alienation.
Yet eight years after the tragic death of Victoria Climbie – who died in similar circumstances – child protection services are still woefully underfunded.
There is a sharp contradiction between the legislation brought in after the review into her death – emphasising that “Every Child Matters” – and the “efficiencies” that result in job cuts, constant restructuring and a huge increase in paperwork.
The introduction of market forces into care services has eroded the ability of social workers to spend time with children or advocate for poor families.
Most social workers now spend 70 percent of their working life completing computer database requirements. The office staff who could have undertaken some of this work have been replaced by laptops and home-working.
The daily reality for child protection social workers is impossible deadlines, unreasonable caseloads, constant performance inspections and a lack of time to discuss children’s needs.
This results in a conveyor belt of vulnerable children to be processed and moved on. And it all eats away at social workers’ morale and ability to cope.
The professional lifespan of a child protection social worker at the front line in London is now less than two years before “burn-out”. They work in a constant condition of anxiety and fear.
We should ask questions whenever a child is killed. But we must also try to explain the scale of the political fall-out in this case.
The most right wing politicians and press are at the fore of the current culture of blame. Their goal is to place full responsibility onto parents and families – regardless of their social conditions and resources.
This shifting of responsibility onto the individual is used to justify many of the cuts to welfare services.
There is also an attempt to move towards an authoritarian, vengeful approach to parents under pressure and families in trouble.
This creates a pressure for social workers to adopt an agenda of criminal justice and punishment, not social welfare.
The problems children face go way beyond those currently addressed by child protection services. At any one time, more than 750,000 children are directly affected by domestic abuse between their parents or carers.
More than one million children are affected daily by their parents’ use of drugs or alcohol.
At least three million children live in poverty in Britain – but there is no outrage or demand for ministerial resignations over this damning fact.
And Britain is consistently marked as one of the lowest countries in Europe for the wellbeing of children.
These are just some of the issues that we should be taking up. Instead we get a witch-hunt – the results of which are already predictable.
Scapegoating social workers and other care staff will make our jobs much harder and will create more barriers to working effectively to prevent child abuse.
The attacks will further demoralise those working in child protection and will make children more vulnerable still. The social work unions should be speaking out in defence of their members.
We must organise to fight for the values of social care – a fight that is bound up with the struggle for a better and safer future for children.
Parents and foster carers need support
There are now calls to make it easier to take children into care. Sue Berelowitz, the new deputy children’s commissioner, said that it is time to challenge the “received wisdom” that it is better to keep children with their families.
It is true that there are some cases where children are at risk if they stay with their family.
But it is very expensive to take children into care and child protection workers say that this option is sometimes overruled because of cost.
The statistics for care leavers give a glimpse of the distressing experience of many young people in care.
Around 6,000 young people leave care every year – 4,500 of them with no qualifications. Within two years of leaving care, 20 percent will be homeless and half will be unemployed.
Young people who have been in care are proportionately more likely to end up in prison – around half of all under 25 year olds in prison are care leavers.
There is a shortfall of 10,000 foster carers according to the Fostering Network. Fostering is a difficult job, yet around 40 percent of carers receive no financial support and 75 percent get less than the minimum wage.
Under the present system both options for dealing with children at risk – supporting a child to stay with their family or taking the child into care – are rotten solutions.
Disgracefully, despite numerous public outcries over child deaths, spending on children’s services still stands at roughly the same levels as in 1993.
In many services funding has been cut or channelled away from direct contact with children and families.
We must demand more funding and support services as a prerequisite for beginning to offer a service that can help provide a secure future for children. This means offering support to parents and carers consistently – not as a last resort.
We also have to look at wider questions about what causes violence and abuse in the family and what sort of future we are offering to young people.
Addressing the violence in the family
The case of Baby P is not an isolated incident. One child is killed on average every week by a parent or carer.
Infants under one year old are the most likely group in Britain to die a violent death – around 7 percent of children experience serious physical abuse from parents or carers according to the NSPCC children’s charity. Many of these children never appear on the radar of social or health services.
In the coverage of this case, there has been little consideration of the pressures and processes that may drive parents and carers to violence.
Families are a source of support and care for many, but they are also a tinderbox of frustrations and anger that can lead to violence.
Capitalism is based on a mass powerlessness – most of us have no control over the decisions made in society and over our lives.
The family you are born into still determines your future education, job and income.
Britain is an extremely unequal and competitive society – with millions born into a world surrounded by wealth they will never own and where we are told that any failings are our own fault.
These factors put immense pressure on family relationships and can distort people’s sense of acceptable behaviour or respect for other people.
Families also bear the brunt of every attack on the welfare state – as they are expected to fill the gap left behind by cuts in affordable childcare, care for the elderly and those with mental health problems.
Parenting is seen as an individual task – and parents who are struggling are made to feel that they have failed.
Families are also an economic unit under capitalism – with a growing pattern of long hours and shift work piling on the pressure – and things are set to get worse with a recession bringing attacks on jobs and housing.
We have to fight for decent services that don’t just pick up the pieces when things go drastically wrong, but that can help to lift the pressure off families.
We also have to fight a system that creates the isolation and alienation of the family.