Baby P, it must never happen again…?

December 3, 2009

Baby P, it must never happen again. Isn’t that the way I am supposed to start this blog post? I was sent this link, and asked for my thoughts on what we can do to ‘boost’ social work, and I want to answer. But those thoughts don’t start with ‘it must never happen again’.

The question is not, and never should be how to ‘boost’ social work. This is about us, as a society. Its about how we think of child abuse, and how we think of social work. And there are several uncomfortable truths, that need to be addressed, and acknowledged, before I can go on to say what I think would ‘boost’ the profession I am trying desperately hard not to go back to.

Uncomfortable Truth Number 1

Cases like Baby P will happen again. And again. Even if we have the most efficient, amazing, child protection services, ever seen. Even if mistakes are NEVER made. Even if it is funded beyond its wildest dreams, there will always be another Baby P.  There will always be another Victoria Climbie.

Because people can be cunts. Some people can really be cunts. And people will find new, ever more inventive, more sadistic ways of being cunts, ever more clever ways of concealing it, and will continue to try to be cunts. And even if we a have a well funded, well run, efficient, publicly supported system of child protection, unless it is equipped with a crystal ball, and a time machine, it will never be able to prevent every single case of child abuse that ever occurs-because the depths people will sink to, every now and again, are shocking. Its shocking, because it is not the norm. It is not predictable.

It is an uncomfortable truth, its a truth that says some terrible things about human nature, but it is the truth nonetheless.

If we were to use these tragedies to learn lessons, to improve the services we offer, the frameworks within which we protect children- we would go someway to getting ourselves the child protection services we desperately need. And even though we would have to accept that it just isn’t possible to prevent every single case of child abuse, we would at least have a system which was continually improving, and learning lessons.

The inability to acknowledge this simple, uncomfortable truth, means that every single time there is another tragic death, we lead with a massive knee jerk campaign-where the tabloids lead a competition to inspire people to think up the most gruesome ways of taking revenge for said child. This doesn’t lead us to examine how to improve the services we offer. This leads to scalp hunting. Maria Ward had her picture published in The Sun, outside her house, with a petition 40’000 strong, demanding her head on a stick. This is at a time, when the best available review documents showed that she had in fact discussed her concers about Baby P, in a case conference, and had been told to wait for a developmental assessment. When legal advice told her she could not act. When her managers told her she could not act. When her hands were bound in every way possible it appears. Yet still, it was her picture in The Sun, her address written on facebook.

Uncomfortable Truth Number 2

The people who are responsible for the death of Baby P, are the people who murdered him.

Uncomfortable Truth Number 3

Even if we had these mythical perfect child protection services-We are all  responsible for child protection. Not just social workers.

Social workers do not have crystal balls, they make assessments. Assessment of need, of risk.  And that process involves gathering information from lots of people, and putting it together. They don’t have a checklist for 20 signs of child abuse within a home, or a lie detector. They don’t live within peoples homes, are not omnipotent. They take the information gathered from their own visits, and interviews, and gather information from lots of different sources- doctors, health visitors, teachers, family, friends, children themselves…you-to create as accurate a picture as possible.

I thank the lord, I will never again be stood outside a case conference, after it is completed, and be approached by a teacher, saying ‘I didn’t want to say in there, because it would upset mum’, or find out 6 months after the abusive boyfriend has moved in, that actually grandmother, neighbours, and childminder, all knew, but didn’t want to ‘grass’ her up.

I used to hate answering the phone on a Friday afternoon, because guaranteed at 4.25pm, you would get a teacher, who had been desperately concerned about little jonny for weeks, but was going on annual leave today, so could you I just do something about it please…. Not so much a call asking you to do something, but a call to ensure that said teacher didn’t go on holiday with a niggle at the back of her mind.

The existence of social workers, does not absolve the rest of us from responsibility. They are a tool for the rest of us to use, and the assessments they make are largely dependent on evidence provided by others. Even if you visited a family twice a week, for an hour- you get only a sliver of their existence. You cannot put a jigsaw puzzle together, if half of the pieces are being withheld.

Uncomfortable Truth Number 3

Evidence of child abuse is very rarely clear, and unambiguous.

Even the strongest medical evidence, may suggest that an injury could have been made by a) b) or c). A change in a childs behaviour, might have several different causes. Testimony from friends, parents, the child themselves, are exactly that-testimony. Testimony that can contain lies, misrepresentations, maliciousness.

A mother finding it difficult to cope, with a child whose behaviour has changed, can look remarkably similar to a mother who is abusing her child. There is a reason that the burden of proof in care proceedings is ‘the balance of probability’ rather than ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

And this leaves us with the another uncomfortable truth.

Uncomfortable Truth Number 4

The majority of parents and carers who work with social services,  a significant majority of people who end up being subject to child protection plans,  even where children have been hurt and removed from their parents care- are not  evil sadistic child abusers.

I have come across very few parents who didn’t love their children. My ex husband has been a social worker for over 20 years, mostly in child protection. THe majority of his cases are not parents who have deliberately hurt their children, with the sadism shown in the Baby P case, or the Victoria Climbie case. They are overwhelmingly parents who lack capacity. The capacity to put their childs needs before their own, the capacity to protect their children from others, people who cannot cope. And removing children, far from taking them to safety, often means placing them into a system where outcomes for children are not good.

THis is not an area of absolutes. Where the social worker sheriffs, chase baddies, while helping goodies. Where child abusers are all sadistic bastards. The lines are not clear. Good people do bad things, people cause harm without intending to. People under pressure act in peculiar ways.  Support offered in the right way, might help, it might not. Even if intent is not there, social services often have to act, because even without intent-the harm caused to a child is significant enough to warrant it. The majority of cases do not have the clear cut certainty of serious intentional abuse, and to expect professionals to base solutions on the remote possibility of the extreme violence and mistreatment, that was evident in these two high profile cases, is a course of action which can quickly lead to that very intervention causing more harm, than it was ever intended to prevent.

Uncomfortable Truth No 5

And the final uncomfortable truth for today. If you want adequate child protection services, you need to pay for them.

…..which leads us nicely on to my next blog post.



  1. well said

    especially about the cunts

  2. Well said indeed. I’ve always thought the NSPCC ‘full stop’ campaign was actually dangerous and misleading. I also feel social workers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. After the actual sadists who do mean to harm kids, the cunts are the journalists who report on social work in a simplistic and sensationalist manner.

    • THe NSPCC Full Stop Campaign is a particular bugbear of mine. You cannot stop child abuse, you certainly cannot stop it by donating £2 a month to a charity who spend a vast proportion of money raised on political lobbying and advertising. You help to tackle child abuse, by being part of a society where everyone takes responsibility for child abuse. This idea that we can just donate two quid, and let social workers get on with it is ridiculous. Social workers make assessment, and organise resources- they use family, other organisations, people within that childs life- they don’t have magic eyes, and they don’t provide magic forcefields. Child Protection services can organise it, can monitor it, and they can employ people to provide care, when there are no other options.
      THese children exist within society, and society is responsible for protecting them.

  3. yesterday we were talking about the fact you only ever hear the bad stories like baby P and Victoria Clumbie. But you never hear of the success that social workers have.

  4. It seems that the need to maintain the fiction that child protection services can somehow protect all children without exception has become more urgent than the need to protect children in the first place. Second only of course to the need to publicly humiliate social workers and their managers, and to provide scapegoats for public hatred.

    • And it is a fiction. Inspections and audits inevitably result in mass panic, as managers try to make it look like things are running smoothly. When what is in the publics interest is for the real state of affairs to be clear, and the failures in systems to be evident. But then you get back to the ‘cover your back’ mentality, because everyone sees their face under that Sun headline- and you have a blame culture, that is about perpetuating fiction.
      Nothing will help social work, until people have realistic expectations of the profession, and are willing to accept that the very existence of social services is not enough to protect children- it is a tool which can bring other people together to protect children.

  5. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by slummymummy1: http://wp.me/pyBFp-mi Blog post. Baby P-must never happen again?…

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