24 November, 2006

Child Abuse 3: structural problems

In previous posts in this series I examined the over-arching theme of the need for structural reform of child protection policies in the UK through areas labelled medical research and the effects on individual and family. This post moves on to examine the statutory framework, that is, the roles of the legal system, the police and the social services. I do not claim to have given a detailed picture of the area of any of the issues involved, however, I hope the series serves as a rough sketch map, providing at least some illumination to help navigate a complex terrain. Once again I draw heavily on John Hemming's blog and his recent speech in parliament.

Arguably, the structural faults of the legal system in relation the child protection system can be encapsulated in one word: secrecy. Over this series of posts we have seen that the child protection system is too often lacking in transparency. As Hemming told the House of Commons,

One of the difficulties in obtaining information about the child protection system is the secrecy of social services. It is claimed that that secrecy exists to protect the child, but it is clear that it is maintained mainly to protect any professionals involved from allegations of misconduct. The intentions of the majority of the people involved are clearly good and many hard-working people care a lot about their clients, but a much smaller number cause great problems.
It is not just the social services who are secretive. Hemming illustrates the point by referring to: the secrecy imposed by the General Medical Council on the David Southall hearings "against the express will of the parents"; Heidi Frost, of which I can find no further details; the case of Clayton v Clayton; and Nicola and Mark Webster, which I referred to yesterday. As Hemming acknowledges, the government is currently reviewing the question of secrecy and the family courts and it is to be hoped that some moves will be made towards lifting the veil of secrecy which allows too many individuals to dragged into devastating problems by officials whom it not possible to hold publicly to account for their actions.

In addition to the secrecy, there is the obvious problem, which the blog has previously addressed, of the legal system being prepared to base prosecutions for serious crimes on statistical proofs rather than factual evidence, of which Marianne Williams and Sally Clark are examples cited by Hemming.

Moving on to social services, this seems to me to be crux of the problem. Social workers seem to see child abuse everywhere and carry their obsession into witch hunts in the tradition of the Puritan witchfinders. Hemmings refers to the Cleveland Enquiry, to which we can add the Orkney scandal. On the other side of the coin, as Hemming notes, the a fear of missing genuine cases can lead social services "to play safe and treat a normal situation as one where a child is at risk."

There is an obvious danger that social services' obsession with certain form of child abuse can lead to them missing obvious cases. Victoria Climbie is such an example. In her tragic case the problems were of social workers' inaction, in my view, something Haringey social services ineptly tried to cover up. As Hemming says:
In cases like that of Victoria ClimbiĆ©, abuse is obvious and should not haunt the system, driving people to treat normal situations as abusive. Common sense is needed to bring balance back into the system. One key point about the ClimbiĆ© inquiry was that it showed how social workers were busy chasing up the chimera of a few Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy cases and did not have the time to focus on a serious case of abuse, which was ignored.
Alas, common sense does not appear to be a particularly dominant characteristic of social workers. Essentially, this is a question which requires a detailed examination of social worker education and training.

Over this series of posts we have seen that the child protection system is too often lacking in transparency. Decisions affecting the lives of individuals and families are taken in secret and never have to be justified to those involved. Independent scrutiny leads to public accountability, which in turn gives individuals a degree of control over their lives. That is why I agree with the closing sentiments in John Hemming's speech:
The system in the UK has gone wrong in so many ways. It has not served children well. The biggest reason for that is the lack of independent scrutiny.

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