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.