Suffer the Little Children

British news this week has been dominated by a number of high-profile, severe child abuse cases, leading to the death of young children after a series of interventions from health care and social services professionals.

The most serious was especially distressing since it involved Haringey, the London borough that let down little Victoria Climbie so badly a few years ago. The usual hand-wringing, resignations, sackings and reports had followed, all accompanied by the promise that it would never happen again.

Yet Baby P died with multiple injuries despite 60 visits from social workers in his 17-month life. Two days before he died, he was examined by a hospital paediatrician who somehow failed to spot he had eight broken ribs and a broken back. He was sent back home.

Why do we keep getting it wrong? Well, to be ruthlessly objective, there have probably always been a minority of people who beat up and murder their kids, or more likely their girlfriend’s kids. What is most disturbing is that the more procedures are laid down, the more it seems to happen. And maybe that’s more than the problem of implementation. When you lay down guidelines they have a way of becoming a substitute for well-informed, decisive action. In fact, they may well discourage it, since people fear a reprimand for breaking the rules.

When my son was six years old he had a wonderful, motherly and wise class teacher with vast experience who regularly gave distressed children a comforting hug, something that would now be regarded as inappropriate. The school, where I now work, still has excellent staff, but they are a different breed. Though they’re committed, capable and well-intentioned, there’s always the thought at the back of their minds of how an action might be interpreted, whether there’s a paper trail that could be used against them. So they work by the book.

I sit in the library doing my job and listen to ancillary staff trying to explain to small children with cut knees why it would be a good idea to let them put a sticking plaster on – a decision that a distressed five-year-old is in no state to make on some occasions. In fact, it sometimes upsets the child more to be given that autonomy, since it takes away the reassurance they need when they’re hurt and frightened, that the adults around know exactly what to do.

But you have to ask. Treat a child against its will and you could be guilty of assault, or at least inappropriate contact.

And so we come to a situation like this last week in Manchester. A 21-year-old woman with two tiny children presented at a GP’s surgery in a state of such distress that the GP called the police and sent them straight to her home to protect her children. They took an hour to respond and by the end of the day she’d killed them both and is now sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Meanwhile, five miles away, toddlers are having to wait for hours in hospitals without a single toy to occupy them because they’ve all been removed – health authority policy to reduce the risk of cross-infection.

It’s not that we don’t want to protect children. It’s just, we don’t seem to know how to go about it.

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3 thoughts on “Suffer the Little Children

  1. I’ve been following that story at the BBC news site. It’s incredible that after suspicious injuries being found on the child multiple times and the mother being arrested more than once for abuse, that they let him back into that household!
    There was a story not too long ago of a girl if Florida who vanished after she’d slipped through the cracks of social services. Social workers were supposed to be visiting her and her mother but she got lost somewhere in the paperwork and the lack of staff and the high workloads. The error wasn’t discovered until the dead child’s body appeared.
    Something’s broken in both our systems. I hope someone can figure out how to fix it.

  2. I have found myself continually diving for the radio’s Off button during the news in the past week. I tend to be ready to switch stations at a moment’s notice if the kids are in the room anyway, since I’ve discovered it’s amazing what five-and-unders can be picking up even when you think they’re not listening.
    But this week it’s for myself I’ve been turning it off too. Usually I try not to be so cowardly, but I just haven’t been able to bear either of those two stories. That poor woman in Manchester; she was desperate, she knew she was at risk of doing something terrible, she asked for help, and despite people reacting, they didn’t do enough fast enough. And now she has to try to live with the knowledge that she killed her children. I can barely begin to imagine how that must feel.
    And as for Baby P… I can imagine all too well mothers dying in defence of their children; killing, if it came to it, in defence of their children; even, as in the case above, in a state of utter torment doing something terrible to their children. What I cannot as a mother begin to fathom is what is going on in the head of someone who allows, let alone participates in, the ongoing brutal harming of their own child – practically a baby.
    My younger one is a few months older than Baby P, has the blond hair, the big blue eyes. Yesterday morning, he woke about 5 am, as he often does, and because at that time of night I couldn’t face sitting up for ages to rock him back to sleep, I took him into bed with me, as I often do. We settled down together, he snuggled into the crook of my arm, I looked down and kissed the top of his head… and as he drifted off I started thinking about Baby P, and couldn’t get back to sleep, and my heart ached. I so wanted to cuddle that poor little boy, as I’m sure lots of mothers have wanted to do since that story’s been over the news, and I felt completely helpless.
    What’s hard is to turn that emotion into anything practical (other than, I guess, donating to the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, etc) since as you say it all seems to be about systemic failures, and that makes us as individuals feel powerless.

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