The Moral Darkness That Engulfed Baby P

The damning verdict on Haringey children’s services is part of a culture of despair in social work. Day in, day out, we do business with social workers. We have dealt with thousands. So knowing something of how they work we are not surprised that Baby P was visited by social workers 60 times – and still they didn’t spot the abuse, let alone stop it. That example of catastrophic failure can be put down to the paralysed, emotionally shutdown culture of some modern social workers.

I have seen many young trainees enter the profession with a burning ambition to change lives. But that enthusiasm and idealism is lost as it becomes clear that they cannot, with the resources to hand, overcome the relentless deprivation and violence they see every day. Disappointment hardens into a desensitised, jaded cynicism, so much so that the terrible conditions that Baby P endured in his short life become a perverse norm.

There are many more Haringeys and getting rid of the people in charge there won’t resolve an endemic problem. That problem in part is due to a heavy workload. In deprived pockets of Britain, each social worker has to juggle as many as 20 cases of neglect and abuse. The load is worsened by having to pick up colleagues’ cases: there are high rates of sickness and rapid staff turnover. Recently I dealt with a seven-year-old boy who had six new social workers within the year. How can a professional begin to understand that child’s needs? And how can that vulnerable child build a relationship with a carer who will be moving on in weeks?

At this moment, I have on my desk, without having advertised, 55 CVs from care workers desperate to escape from local authority social services. They despair that passion is frowned upon in so many social services departments, dismissed as “overinvolvement”. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that no one should strive to do the job better than anyone else, for fear of elevating themselves above the group and potentially humiliating colleagues.

If social workers are brave enough to sustain a protest on behalf of a child, managers can silence them by disciplinary procedures or frustrate complaints by losing them in the bureaucratic system. Often there is pressure on social workers to remove children from the “at risk” register for the wrong reasons – the council wants to reduce the number on its register to show it has made progress or to keep costs low. In some deprived boroughs, as few as 150 to 200 children are officially “at risk”; a tiny fraction of the actual number.

Social workers in these conditions have a choice: either shut up or leave. Many resign, some burnt out, some through ill health, others because they fear their humanity is being corroded by tolerance of child abuse. But many stay trapped by the need to pay the mortgage, reassured by the universal excuses that “there’s no funding” or that “nothing can ever change”. To survive the moral darkness of knowing that they are leaving children in conditions that they would not accept for their own children, social workers stop thinking, shut down their ability to feel and, in an emotionally cold state, numbly follow procedure. Not getting caught out becomes the aim. They do home visits but don’t see or feel. This is why they fail to notice harm that blatantly stares them in the face.

Two cases spring to mind. I have an astonishing letter from a senior social services department manager. I had written to her about a teenage girl in their care with a crack habit. She told me that the girl couldn’t be an addict because she didn’t have enough money to buy drugs. It had not crossed the manager’s mind that the girl had turned to prostitution. A problem denied doesn’t need solving.

Another is the 17-year-old son of a drug addict, now homeless, because his family home was destroyed by a fire. I raised the alarm about his chaotic and dangerous home life when he was 6. For 11 years he has lived with the certainty of his mother’s addiction and the uncertainty of whether there would be food. He has had to cope with a stream of dealers -one man was nearly killed by another dealer and this boy was falsely accused. He was traumatised by being arrested and fingerprinted at the police station, having never been in trouble. Social services claimed that there was no evidence that his mother was a drug user, so the right help was not forthcoming. The rule is that if something doesn’t exist in the case notes, it doesn’t exist.

But it is too easy to blame social workers working in the ghettos. The real culprits are the politicians who for years have known that children’s social services are not fit for purpose. In 2003 ministers launched a visionary initiative, Every Child Matters, that enshrined a child’s right to health and happiness. But they failed to establish a robust system for checking that this happens.

The Children’s Act 2004 pledged for every child emotionally, physically and sexually abused or neglected, help and a place on the child protection register. That law is systematically broken. Official statistics show that some 550,000 children a year are referred to child protection services. But only 30,000 are allocated a social worker and have a care plan drawn up. Those are the ones who have come to the attention of the authorities. The truth, based on research by Kids Company and London University, is that one in five children in deprived inner cities is surviving neglect and abuse.

Governments have got away with this because abused children cannot hold them accountable. They are invisible, often silent. It’s only when they get angry and violent that politicians are mobilised.

Children’s social services must be sorted out. To let them continue in their dysfunctional way betrays children who need to discover, by receiving compassion and protection, that not all adults are abusive. But don’t blame the social workers. We are all responsible for turning a blind eye or not having enough curiosity. I hope that the public outrage roused by Baby P becomes that urgently needed catalyst for change.

By Camila Batmanghelidjh

  • Camila Batmanghelidjh is the founder of Kids Company, a charity working with with vulnerable children and young people