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No Catchy Tag Line - A Thought About the Politics of Child Protection

14/04/2016 14:50

When anyone sits down to write a blog or opinion piece, if they are anything at all like me, they will be thinking about a point they want to make to drag readers in, if you will an angle to provoke and promote debate and interaction.

For the first time ever a story has so affected me that I'm sitting down writing this today with absolutely no idea of a hook or a way of engaging readers. I'm writing this because I want to make a point, a point in which I want to downplay anything which could even come close to sensationalising the story.

It's quite possible that the length of this column is too long, that it is too boring. I completely get that. I'm writing it precisely as a counter to anyone who wants to score points.

I hope you stay with me.

I am sure that there is not one single right thinking person out there who cannot fail to have been dismayed and horrified at the tragic death of toddler Ayeeshia Jane Smith and last week's conviction for her murder of her mother, Kathryn Smith, and for failure to intervene by her ex-partner Matthew Rigby.

There cannot be one of us that have not questioned how a parent could ever commit such a heinous crime? There cannot be one of us that have not asked how could the authorities have allowed this to happen?

Both of those questions are absolutely right and both questions have to be answered. We absolutely have to understand what can drive a mother to cold bloodedly kill her child and just as importantly, perhaps even more so, we have to understand what lessons can be learned to make sure that given the same circumstances such a tragedy could not happen again.

The sad and inevitable truth however is that at some point in the next two or three years, just as there was never supposed to be another Victoria Climbie or Peter Connelly or Daniel Pelka, there will be another Ayeeshia Jane Smith.

I hope and pray that I am wrong, that there is never another child murdered at the hands of callous parents, but I won't be.

Three years ago I was elected as a councillor to Leicestershire County Council. A number of vagaries and a set of fortuitous circumstances meant that straight away I became Chairman of that local authorities Children and Families Overview and Scrutiny Committee, the body charged with seeking assurances on how the council dealt with what was left of education and the increasingly important area of looking after vulnerable children.

It was the first time I had ever chaired such an important committee but it struck me straight away that protecting children was no place for party politics. They were far too important for such trivialities.

I spoke with my Conservative and Liberal Democrat counterparts and I explained my idea that we would have unfettered access to the department, access that meant we could truly ask questions, scrutinise and be assured that we were doing things right. In return I proposed that we wouldn't go running to the newspapers when we found minor things that needed fixing, we would give the administration time to put them right.

To my eternal gratitude my counterparts and officers agreed straight away and have been as good as their word.

The only way, however, in which such an understanding can be built is one in which we can all agree that even with the best social work practice in the world we can never say with certainty that a tragedy will never happen.

It's true that throughout the country referrals to social services have rocketed. It's true that more and more children have been taken into care. It's true that budgets have grown nowhere near in line with caseloads and Children and Families departments up and down the country are being expected to do more with less.

None of this seeks to minimise the trauma of a tragedy or the questions that need to be asked but rather to contextualise the position that local authorities throughout Britain are in.

It may well be that there are lessons to be learnt from the death of little Ayeeshia. It may well be, although I have no knowledge of the case, that mistakes were made. One would expect the Serious Case Review to identify such issues and professionals to act upon them.

At the same time I have absolutely no doubt that social workers and colleagues in councils across the country, people who regularly go above and beyond anything that could be reasonably expected of them, will be mortified that their profession will be dragged through the mud once more.

And that is the point of what I am writing today.

Sadly we know in the face of a tragedy some politicians and some of those who want to be, I am purposely not naming them but I have already seen comments being made, will use a child's death to score easy political points.

There will be those who, despite the fact that we all know circumstances are much more complicated, seek to vilify a profession because to do so chimes with a base instinct.

There will be those who choose to scapegoat people who care when the ones who should be highlighted are those manipulative individuals who commit horrific crimes.

I have been extremely fortunate. I am assured that the department I scrutinise is a good one with some exceptional staff but that doesn't mean to say a tragedy couldn't happen.

If it did, just like many others, I would want answers but I would want nuance and an expectation that lessons really had been learned. I hope to God I wouldn't be seeking to make political capital.

What we all need is professionals who, with appropriate supervision and scrutiny, are free to do their jobs protecting children, not living in fear of being the next convenient scapegoat.

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