THE BLOG

Tragedy of Callum Wilson Highlights Risks Faced by Children Returning From Care

04/04/2014 16:55 BST | Updated 04/06/2014 10:59 BST

This week we learned from a review into his death that the murder of an 11-month-old boy by his mother could have been prevented.

Callum Wilson was returned to his mother Emma after being in foster care. We heard from the Serious Case Review how a series of professionals could have helped prevent this shocking tragedy. Only one person was responsible for his death but its right that we look at the mistakes that were made in this case. It once again highlights the risks faced by too many children when they return home from care.

His mother denied his existence when pregnant, was committed to giving him up for adoption, and didn't see him for long periods while he was with foster parents - yet no assessment was undertaken to ensure it was safe for Callum to be returned to Wilson. No one seems to have adequately asked whether Callum should have been returned home or the changes that would be needed to ensure that Callum was safe. Callum's return was almost determined as a fait accompli and assumed as inevitable.

If social workers had proactively checked and assessed whether Wilson, with the right support behind her, was able to provide a safe environment for Callum then they may have come to a very different conclusion. A comprehensive assessment of her ability to look after Callum could have revealed evidence he was not safe to be with her and led the authority to issue care proceedings. Some of this evidence was clear to see, yet the serious case review reveals that his mother was not even visited by a social worker before Callum was handed back to her.

Few measures were in place to keep Callum safe after his return home. Follow up and support by social care was grossly inadequate, with just two home visits before the case was closed, despite the fact that scratches were seen on his face. Had Callum been visited for longer by social services, his weight loss and injuries may have been discovered sooner and he could have been taken to safety.

Health and social care workers all underestimated the threat his mother posed to the baby - too easily believing her explanations of his injuries and not appreciating the significance, from the outset, of two concealed pregnancies.

Research shows that for too many children returning home from care don't get the safety and stability they deserve. Around half of children who come into care because of abuse or neglect suffer further harm when they go home. Support provided to children and families is currently way below that which is needed. Large numbers of children, for example, regularly return to households where a parents have serious drug or alcohol issues but demand for access to treatment for these and other issues far outstrips supply. Without the right support for families, children and vulnerable young people can often face a revolving door of going into care and returning home. The reasons they entered the care system in the first place are never fully addressed with parents increasingly unable to cope and provide a loving, caring environment.

The difficulty of these decisions must not be under-estimated and the NSPCC's How Safe report this week showed the strain local children's services are under. With record reporting of child abuse, hard pressed children's social service departments have little choice but to raise the threshold of where they act. Social workers do an incredible job in extremely challenging circumstances and thousands of children are made safe as a result of the choices they make.

But when children are returned home from care social workers must use their professional judgment and experience to find out whether a parent has positively changed, or is willing to with help, and if a child can be safe with the right support in place. This requires professional curiosity and scepticism, to spot the things that don't add up, and the same rigour should be applied to decisions about a child returning from care, as when a child first enters the care system.

With appropriate support it is absolutely right that we should aim to keep children together with their families. But the revolving door of care and further harm children are regularly exposed is profoundly damaging to often already vulnerable children.

The Department for Education has taken welcome steps to highlight some of the issues affecting children returning home from care, and how support for them needs improvement. But more needs to be done. The Government's response to its recent consultation on improving permanence for children in care must set out how it will improve assessment practice, strengthen the monitoring of risk after a child has returned home and increase support available to for children, parents and families to ensure safe and successful returns.

This area of work has been overlooked for too long. Changes are long overdue to stop putting children unnecessarily at risk of harm and to give them the best possible chance of their return home after care being a positive one. This is the very least children who have often been through so much deserve.

Improvements to the support we give these children must be seen as a priority by Government and local authorities. Without this children like Callum are likely to continue to be harmed and the revolving door of care will continue to affect too many young lives every year.