Who’s Watching Your Child? The Be Sure, BEFORE Campaign
Aims: To address the stranger danger myth, empower parents to protect their children more effectively, sensitively empower children through knowledge and voice, and suggest improvements to the child protection system intended to make it harder for predators to prey on a child through his or her family.
Action Against Abuse recommends 3 umbrella actions to tackle this problem, all of which are practical, relatively easy to implement, and cost-effective.
Our suggestions are intended to promote prevention, which ultimately is many times cheaper than dealing with the consequences of child abuse.
The case of Baby Peter Connolly is used as an example to highlight the need for improvements.
When taken together, these interventions approach the issues from all perspectives and should go some way to making it more difficult for abusers to prey on vulnerable children through contact with their families.
1) Intervention 1: AWARENESS
The very first step to solving a problem is to make people aware of it. The ‘stranger danger’ myth is still perpetuated despite the fact that it does not reflect the true reality, which is that the vast majority of child victims know their abuser in some way.
The government must take steps to change public perception so that parents have a more complete picture of the risks to their children and families. This could include:
- A public awareness campaign, possibly including leaflets, and radio/TV ad campaigns. This could include statistics about the prevalence of the problem to expose the stranger danger myth, advice for safe guarding children against this type of abuse, and signs to look for. It should stress the importance of talking/listening to children, cultivating an open and honest relationship with them, and encourage sensible vigilance.
- A sensitive, age-appropriate educational program about issues related to child abuse as part of Personal Health Education in schools, where children are informed, encouraged and made to feel able to come forward about anything that might be bothering them at home, starting in pre-school and continuing at periodic intervals throughout the developmental stages. This should empower children with the knowledge of how they should be respected, and provide a more accessible avenue for them to seek help should they need it, particularly if the abuser is within their own family (thus they are unlikely to have the support/courage to speak out at home). In the case of Baby Peter Connelly, his older siblings may have been able to speak out at school…if they’d felt safe, if they’d felt sure they would have been believed, if they’d known what was happening at home was wrong, if the opportunity to speak out had presented itself to them.
2) Intervention 2 : IMPROVEMENTS TO CHILD PROTECTION PROCEDURE
Attempts to better protect children in the 5 years since Baby Peter Connolly’s death have not yet been entirely effective. Children are still as likely to be murdered in their homes now, as they were at the time Peter died (NSPCC)
Not enough is done to assess the reality of family situation and family history when a child is first referred to social services, and as an ongoing concern. This includes things like family dynamic: who is around the children, are they safe, do they have a history of violence, substance abuse and other red flags?
The NSPCC stated in a recent report that the ‘arrival of an unknown male’, often as a mother’s partner, into the lives of vulnerable children can be a significant threat to safety.
The serious case review into Peter’s death identified the arrival of an ‘unknown’ male (Stephen Barker) as a serious obstacle to the success of efforts to protect Peter. Both the police and social services maintain that had they known about the presence of Barker in the Peters’ life, then they would have acted very differently, and maybe ultimately this could have been the difference between life and death for little Peter.
In his assessment of child protection in the UK following Peter’s death, Lord Laming identified a perception slanted by a ‘rule of optimism‘ among social workers towards Peters’ mother as an obstacle to his protection. This means essentially, the social services felt they were dealing with a struggling single mother, who had a low IQ and a chaotic life, leading her to neglect her children, resulting in their injury. She seemed worried about Peter and co-operative with social services. The knowledge of Barker and Owen in Peter’s life may have forced them to draw entirely different and more accurate conclusions about the nature of Peter’s injuries.
But the evidence suggests Haringey social services at least SHOULD have been aware of Barker’s presence, or that they were aware, but for various reasons, failed to investigate or act upon it. Maybe the severe overload of cases social workers have to deal with, coupled with the beurocratic obligations of the job, rendered social workers unable or unwilling to hear the alarm bells that should have been ringing.
Peter’s natural father reports that he informed the social services of Barker’s presence…why was this ignored? Barker answered the door to a family support worker at least once…why did no-one consider he may be involved in the odd circumstances at home? Barker surely would have been seen with Tracey Connolly in the months he was terrorising her children…why did the authorities not pick up on this? Connolly openly talks about her relationship on social networking sites, such as Bebo…her profile was open to the general public, anyone who wanted too could have known Connolly was in a relationship. At the first case conference to discuss injuries to Peter, the Barker was mentioned by his first name… why was this not followed up? But maybe most compelling of all, during a video made by senior social work manager Susan Gilmour as part of a review on a pilot scheme Connolly was involved in, Connolly speaks at great length about her ‘friend’. She uses his name, talks about cooking him a valentines dinner and says he has been making the garden nicer for the children.
If the Social Services had passed this information to the police so that they could investigate the possibility of Barker being the abuser, or if social services had investigated it properly themselves, Peter might still be alive today.
- All agencies (including medical and educational services) need to be made aware of the importance of a parental partner in child abuse cases, and need to be legally obligated to pass any information relating to this on to other agencies involved in the child’s protection. For example, if an unknown person answers the door to a social worker, or is spoken about in a video, or is said to be involved in the lives of vulnerable children, the social services (or other authority ie NHS, school etc) must pass this information onto the police, and visa versa.
- If authorities/individuals fail to pass on information or investigate suggestion of an unknown person in the lives of vulnerable children, they must be held accountable for their actions.
- · The government must recruit and train more high-quality social workers and reduce case loads to an acceptable level, including taking into account that working with 1 child actually involves working with an entire family. Pressure on social workers must be reduced and they must have the time to wholly investigate every threat to a vulnerable child.
The issue of ‘disguised compliance‘, where by a parent/care-giver pretends to be co-operating with social services but in fact is only appearing to understand and comply with requests relating to a child’s well-being, is a massive problem.
Disguised compliance involves deception on the part of the care-giver to hide abuseand manifests in an infinite number of ways. Common examples include tidying a house before a visit from authorities, or keeping up attendance at school for as long as necessary to appear to be co-operative. In baby Peter’s case, his mother voluntarily took him to medical appointments, smeared chocolate on his face and put him in a pram when his back is believed to have been broken for a social worker visit to hide his injuries and give the impression of a well-looked after child (just on his way to the park, maybe?).
Disguised compliance can involve denying the existence or involvement of a romantic partner/friend in the care of children. Baby Peter’s mother also did this, and, the NSPCC cite the arrival of a new partner to be a significant factor in relation to child deaths caused by abuse, in spite of Lord Lamings recommendation following Peters death that child protection professionals must develop “professional uncertainty” and remain sceptical of the explanations, justifications or excuses they may hear.
The issue of disguised compliance is a real threat to the safety of vulnerable children, and more must be done to tackle it. Potential solutions could include:
- Setting guidelines for a higher occurrence of unannounced visits by social services.
- Setting guidelines for more thorough investigation of family circumstances at regular intervals when child abuse is suspected (for example, investigation into evidence of unknown person at family home and on social networking site profiles). While time limits may need to be more flexible to allow for more in-depth assessment, any modification to guidelines must account for the need for urgency in many cases, and the potential risk of cases being allowed to ‘slide’ if guidelines are relaxed.
- Training on deception detection for social workers, including reading body language, the psychology of deception and other subtle clues.
- Targets for consistency relating to social worker and child. As much as possible, children should have consistent social workers for their time as a protected child. Social workers who know the family are more equipped to gain the trust of a child, and to recognise the family dynamic and therefore changes within it that make effect potential risk factors for the child. This way a child may feel more comfortable with speaking honestly.
- Encourage more joint social work visits in cases where so as to get a second opinion and therefore improve the chances of detecting possible deception.
- Implement more practical/psychological support and ongoing training for social workers dealing with children with difficult/intimidating families within their own homes, so that they feel empowered to ask the difficult questions they must ask, and carry out the checks they must carry out without fear or threat.
Following the death of Peter Connolly, the government set up a whistle-blowers hotline for NHS and social service staff.
This was because of the revelations that Haringey bosses had tried to gag whistle-blower Nevres Kemal, who had attempted to warn ministers of an impending tragedy at Haringey due to the inadequate child protection before Peter died, and another whistle-blower Kim Holt, 2 days before Peter’s death, had warned of unsafe practice at the hospital where he was treated.
Whistle-blowers are essential to the integrity, accountability and effectiveness of social work: there has to be a network whereby professionals are able to express concerns about the practice and procedure they see within their work (and who else is best place to judge?), without fear of consequence, intimidation or retribution.
Unfortunately, the implementation of Ofsted’s national whistle-blowers hotline has not been entirely successful. Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said:
“Members are, in the main, disinclined from using it as they are not confident it will provide them with sufficient protection from their employer. There is a perception that concerns will get back to employers. Some members say this has been their experience.”
- The government must address issues of confidentiality and the lack of confidence social workers have in the safety and effectiveness of Ofsted’s whistle-blowers hotline.
Serious Case Reviews
Serious case reviews are in-depth investigations, carried out every time a child dies and where neglect or abuse are believed to be the cause. They can also be carried out when children have been seriously harmed.
The Department for Education, which oversees children’s services, says the purpose of a serious case review is
‘to establish whether there are lessons to be learnt from the case about the way in which local professionals and organisations work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children’.
Since the death of Baby Peter, the government have taken steps to improve the transparency and publication procedures for serious case reviews.
Previously, only summaries were published (if anything at all), lessening the potential for serious case reviews to actually fulfil their purpose and allow all professionals to ‘learn the lessons’ they hold, but now reports are generally published in full (with the exception of identity protection).
However, this is not enough and there are still problems needlessly hampering their effectiveness. In a report examining child protection in the 5 years following the death of Baby Peter, the NSPCC said:
‘We have concerns that lessons from serious case reviews are not changing frontline practice because the same issues keep cropping up. There are many good, highly motivated professionals doing an extremely difficult job but they need to be supported by a system that allows a coordinated approach to child protection. Only then can we start to plug the gaps which sometimes leave children exposed to serious harm.’
There is no specific guidance for the 148 safeguarding children boards as to how serious case reviews should be published; they are sometimes available only on request due to confidentiality concerns, or removed from the board’s website after being up there for a while.
To request a serious case review, first you must know it exists. This means social workers must rely on the media to report a case so that they may request information on the SCR, a ridiculous wasted opportunity to better protect children AND a waste of public money which funds SCRs – what’s the point if the lessons contained within them are not widely published and easily accessible?
Serious case reviews could be used much more effectively to prevent abuse by informing and empowering professionals, if the government:
- Introduces a centralised, complete register that professionals or the public can easily access for up to date information on serious case reviews. This would address both issues of transparency and accessibility of SCRs.
- Implements Prof Munro’s suggestions of publishing serious case reviews showing examples of good practice, as well as bad, and that they should focus of process, rather than assigning blame.
3) Intervention 3: RESEARCH
- The government must fund and resource more research into family structure and dynamic in relation to child abuse. Child abuse committed by a parental partner or family friend is a significant problem, but the causes of it (which should allude to effective prevention) are a mystery because the research simply isn’t there.
- The Home Office should differentiate the biological nature of parenthood in homicide statistics that are concerned with the relationship of child-victim to perpetrator. This will provide a more accurate representation of the problem and may lead to clues regarding successful intervention.