Return to the story of baby Peter…

I keep finding myself returning to this story- as much because the events following the terrible death of this little boy have created huge changes to how we as a society approach the care and protection of our most vulnerable children. Some of this might be a good thing- but I have to tell you also that much of it is not. It is policy pushed by tabloid journalism- and lets face it- the red tops are not exactly flavour of the month at the moment are they?

I return to the story today because I read that the social worker who was the case worker for Peter today won damages from The Sun (Murdoch again- for those outside the UK, this paper is about as bad as you can imagine a ‘news’ paper can get.) Sylvia Henry had tried hard to remove Peter from his mothers care- but was pilloried by The Sun as ‘Showing no remorse’ and having ‘ducked responsibility for his death’.

It may be of interest to readers that the same place I read this story also carried news of a Serious Case Review into the death of another child- Ryan Lovell-Hancox, who died in the care of people paid to look after him in Wolverhampton. The review highlighted familiar issues- 14 failed opportunities to save him by social work, health and police. The sad truth is that the deaths of children at the hands of adult care givers are not rare events.

However, since the death of Peter, referral rates to children’s social care departments in the UK have reached unprecedented rates. There has been no increase in resources, or numbers of social workers to deal with the demands of this difficult and sometimes traumatic work.

Most social workers ask themselves fairly frequently whether we too could make a mistake, or just find ourselves in the middle of a media storm because of a tragic death. Most of us have to conclude that it could happen to any of us, at almost any time. There was an interesting article in BASW’s ‘Professional Social Work’ Magazine today by Colin Mabbut, a senior child care practitioner, asking himself what he would have done, faced with the circumstances that the social worker encountered around the death of baby Peter. I wonder if this might be of interest to people outside social work- as it must be really hard to understand how people even begin to approach the task of monitoring children at risk.

Would I have picked baby Peter up on my last visit, thereby revealing that he had a broken back and other injuries of torture?

Colin points us to the criticism leveled against the fact that this did not happen, and the final chance to save this boy was lost.

What was not widely reported at the time however was that Peter was not an only child- rather he was one of eight resident in the household- of which only three (including Peter) were on a child protection plan. Imagine being in a house like this- all the mess and chaos of it. In this instance, Peter was in his pushchair, with a face smeared with chocolate (covering facial injuries) he was initially asleep, and when he woke he smiled at the social worker, who took the fateful decision not to disturb him by picking him out of his chair so soon after he had woken.

Would I have done differently? Probably not.

Would I have wiped the chocolate from his face to check for injuries?

With hindsight, yes. But in the press of a busy day? Perhaps not.

Would I have been sufficiently suspicious to have discovered that Peter’s mother had a male living in the house that I was unaware of?

How do you sift the mess of human emotions and motivations to always see the bigger picture? Anyone who has a child will know how difficult it is to always know the truth of what you are told- how much more difficult is this when dealing with adults who are setting out to confuse- who may appear compliant, even eager to please, whilst actually being manipulative and evasive.

My social work career (working with adults with mental health problems) has meant that my default position is to accept as truth what I am told. Sure I seek to understand the story behind the story, but I am not often in the position of having to forensically deconstruct the words given to me in order to shake out every evasion, every deceit. My childcare colleagues do this every day- I used to joke with my old child care team leader room mate that she was bad cop to my good cop.

But even with the best of intentions, bad cop has to form a working relationship with parents- otherwise no any protection plan is difficult to achieve. This means that there are times to be assertive and authoritative, and times to work collaboratively and in partnership. Peter’s mother was on the face of things being compliant.

Would I have known that there was another malevolent presence in the house that increased the risk to Peter considerably? Again the answer has to be- probably not.

I would not like to give the idea that this job is impossible- it is not. Children at risk are protected daily- as a matter of routine- from situations every bit as appalling as that faced by Peter.

There is still a debate about OUTCOMES for children in our under resourced system however- this is the real scandal I am afraid…

4 thoughts on “Return to the story of baby Peter…

  1. This is a huge and very sobering subject…and a sore one within my family. My mother fostered children for 20 years, adopted one and gave birth to four. She’s amazing. She fought a notable court case in the 60’s, to keep a foster child who was being removed from our home. The reason for this was that, because of a new manager, the thoughts were that the 8 or so siblings of my foster brother should all be housed under one roof…despite the fact that most had no relationship and were happily placed. The decision was a disaster. the ‘new family’ were shocking abusers and paedophiles. My mother read about it in the press and demanded to have the report which we recieved, around 1990. This was sickening reading. She reunited with ‘J’ and I met him for the first time. The lives of J and his siblings have been ruined, in short. This is not the only time I have witnessed truly bad judgement within social work. I know that in most cases the intent is good, but in many cases, beurocracy and the fact of too much power, or lack of it fails the system. It seems as though in too many cases bad parents are given the benefit of the doubt and good ones are wrongly accused because of achrimony with ex partners and such. A minefield.

    • Sounds like a terrible failure of everything we are aiming at when we care for kids. I would like to say that things are better now- but the reality is that child protection social work is a bureaucratic response to a societal problem. Individual social workers (an all their variety) may try to hold on to the value base that brought them into the job in the first place, but the reality is that they work for a state system. The question is of course- what do you replace it with? Or if there is no real alternative- how do you make it better?

      The terrible story of your foster brother should be a drive to change things for the better- but I would gently suggest that this is not just about changing social work- but rather changing the whole way that we approach the protection of children in the care of the state. It is not just about money- but it is not insignificant that Germany spends FOUR TIMES the amount we spend on each individual child in care. And their outcomes are good- ours are dreadful.

      The final point of your comment digs into the exact conundrum that child care social workers face- ‘too much power’ (although many of my colleagues would entirely dispute this!) or ‘giving bad parents the benefit of the doubt’. At present, kids are being removed from their homes at an unprecedented rate in the name of child protection- the pendulum will swing again and there will be an outcry about miss use of power by interfering social workers.

      The point of my previous post was this however- it is very tempting to blame the failings of the system- either miss use of power, or failure to act to protect- on social work. Ignore the fact that decisions about protecting children are always taken by a range of professions- doctors, police, health visitors, school nurses- this still misses the point. What is needed is a real debate about how our society seeks to look after the most vulnerable people in our care, and stops this tabloid led scapegoating of one set of staff.

      Without this- who will ever want to do the job? Will we have people with drive and passion, with a real heart for kids? Will the job attract the best of the best? Or will we have people who drift into the job as a last resort, delivering care by clipboard.

      Sorry Nik- this is rather a long rant- forgive me if it seems to ignore the real pain and distress in your family, for which I am very sorry. Lets hope that things may yet be better, for all our sakes…

      Someone once said that you can judge the nature of a country by how well it treats it’s prisoners. I would agree- whilst adding that we should also be judged by how well we look after our protected children- measured in the quality of their growing and the healthiness of their adulthood…

      Cheers

      Chris

  2. You’re absolutely right, Chris, social workers do become the scapegoats, I guess because the public feels that the buck rests with them. I’ve worked for local authority for 24 years and have experience of the dim view the public has of us. It’s comforting to know that many children are also saved and have a better life when rescued from abusive homes too. I had no idea that Germany spends more on children in care, this is interesting because my Mum always recounts how there very little renumeration during her fostering days, She sees the idea of a ‘wage’ as wrong, and maybe attracts the wrong people to foster in some cases. Of course this is a one sided view, as the cost of child rearing is high in any circumstance.

  3. Pingback: Child protection- are you happy with what we do in your name? « this fragile tent

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