The case of Amanda Hutton, who was jailed this week for allowing her four-year-old son Hamzah Khan to starve to death and who hid the body for two and a half years, is almost too horrifying to contemplate. But with 198,000 babies in the UK living in complex families with a history of substance abuse or mental illness this will not be the last case of its kind.
This is a complex area and when cases like this reach the headlines, they are the worst examples of when things have gone horribly wrong. More must be done to prevent these cases reaching their tragic conclusion, but what?
At a Policy Exchange meeting at the Conservative party conference earlier this week there was a new initiative discussed that aims to change the way that help is provided in the first days of a child's life. The aim is to focus more support on babies from conception to the age of two - the first 1001 days of a child's life and offers some hope that cases like Hamzah's could be prevented in the future.
Andrea Leadsom MP spoke at the event and is spearheading a cross party group which calls for a radically different approach to the way we address the mental health needs of babies and their parents during these first critical days. She is remorselessly focused on this period because the child's brain develops so rapidly during this time, it is the critical moment in their lives to make a real difference. In fact, the brain has reached 80% of its adult weight by 18 months and millions of neural connections have formed at a rate of one million per second. Miss this period and you're forever playing catch up.
It's also the time that a child bonds with its parents/carer and the evidence set out in the supporting report produced by the Wave Trust that the better the care giving environment during the early years of life the better the social and emotional development of the child.
When the experts and policy wonks get going on the support and care for children it can all become very confusing, which is in itself part of the problem, but Leadsom does a great job of cutting through the waffle and this is what I took from what she said:
No sane parent wants to stub out cigarettes on their child, it's not normal.......Mothers who have their babies taken away go on to have other babies, because they wanted to have a child. Because they didn't know how to care for their child, doesn't mean that they stop wanting to be parents.
This makes a lot of sense. Her argument is for more intervention early on and focused on those parents needing more help. With a more holistic approach to ante, peri (conception to the first 18months of life) and post natal care, the 1001 Critical Days manifesto wants to see services more readily available for at-risk families and for greater promotion of parent-infant interaction.
It is crucial that the right services are in place locally to ensure that women who are suffering from mental health problems are given appropriate support at the earliest opportunity. And the manifesto calls for birth registrations to be made available to Children's Centres. This step alone will increase the chance of finding those parents and children who really need help at the earliest opportunity and seems like such a sensible and necessary step it's a wonder that it's not in place already.
With a more joined up approach and midwives and GPs playing a more active role in holisitic care it moves away from a siloed approach, where the care giver provides the service they have, rather than focusing on what is actually needed. The manifesto also calls for high quality training in infant mental health and attachment as standard, so that practitioners know what they are looking for and how to provide help when problems arise.
With 36 organisations pledging support, including NSPCC, Royal College of Midwives and MP's Frank Field, Paul Burstow and Caroline Lucas signatories to the campaign, this approach is already gaining momentum. Leadsom has clearly seized the moment. Lets hope we see movement and results.
Figuring out which Government department should be driving forward this agenda could be the first question that needs answering? Responsibility sits between the Department of Heath and Education. Perhaps there is a gap for a Minister with a foot in both departments to make sure scarce resources are pooled and results delivered. Whatever needs to happen, lets hope we see progress soon as this seems like an approach that could really make a difference.