Councils inundated with calls as public respond to publicity

The Baby P scandal has led to councils across the north and north-east being inundated with calls about at-risk children. New figures from Aberdeen City Council show referrals went up by a quarter last year and the number of youngsters on the child-protection register soared by half in the past eight months.

Social work chiefs in the city have said that publicity surrounding recent high-profile abuse cases, such as the deaths of Baby P in London and Brandon Muir in Dundee, contributed to the increases.

Moray Council also reported a rise in referrals “definitely” linked to the Baby P case.

A spokesman said: “We have noticed a moderate increase in referrals and awareness in child-protection matters both among the public and professionals.

“We can definitely track it to the issues that the Baby P case raised.”

In Aberdeen, there are now 216 vulnerable city youngsters on the child-protection register, up 51% since December last year, when there were 143.

Aberdeen City Council deputy leader Kevin Stewart said: “Obviously, high-profile cases often lead to more referrals. I don’t think that is a bad thing because it shows that the service is doing the job it’s supposed to do.”

Highland Council’s head of children’s services, Bill Alexander, said there had not been a dramatic rise in referrals in the region but that more people were now aware of the issues around child protection.

“Certainly, there is a heightened awareness amongst the public, which is welcome,” he said.

“There has been for some time significant numbers of children coming into the looked-after system, but that doesn’t mean an overall increase at any time because many children continue to be supported at home.”

Tory health spokeswoman Mary Scanlon, MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said: “For too long people have sat back assuming that social work and the health service can deal and are dealing with vulnerable children.

“I think what we have learned from Brandon Muir and other high-profile cases is that we all have a responsibility to come forward.”

In the north-east, child-protection services were heavily criticised by the HM Inspectorate of Education and the Social Work Inspection Agency last year.

Aberdeen City Council recruited troubleshooter Philip Cotterill to overhaul its social work department and he reported an “enormous” rise in referrals in December last year and March this year.

The increase, which Mr Cotterill attributed to publicity surrounding the death of 17-month-old Baby P, later identified as Peter, was not quantified until the council published its new figures yesterday.

Mr Cotterill has now been replaced at the council by Fred McBride, who was Dundee City Council’s head of children’s services when 23-month-old Brandon Muir died in another high-profile abuse case.

Wes Cuell, who is the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s director of children’s and young people’s services, said: “If the public feel more comfortable about spotting and reporting suspicions of abuse, we may well see such rises in referrals.

“What is important to remember is that research continues to indicate that a lot of abuse never comes to light, so these figures can only give us an indication of the true extent of abuse taking place and it’s important that members of the public act if they are concerned.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “It’s essential that members of the public feel empowered to come forward and report any concerns they have about the welfare of children.”

“At a local level, child-protection committees have a specific responsibility to actively raise awareness of child-protection issues through local advertising, distributing leaflets and other promotional materials, activities in schools, websites and events in shopping centres, to encourage people to report their concerns directly to the relevant local agencies.

“Public awareness of the safety and protection of children is one of the 18 quality indicators against which HMIE inspects child-protection provision.

“From the 31 reports published so far, this is one of the strongest areas, with over 70% of local authorities evaluated as good or better in this area.”