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…