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…

A baby dies…

One of the heatbreaking picture of baby P shortly before he died.

One of the heatbreaking picture of baby P shortly before he died.

I am off work today- a return of an old problem with cluster headaches. Dreadful things- a conveyor belt of Migraines. I think I am over it, and then the vision goes, the sickness and nausea kick in, and the head starts to split…

In between, I am functioning, but not very well.

Almost by way of penance, I have been catching up with some information about the dreadful story of baby P, whose tragic death at the hands of his mother and mother’ boyfriend has been all over the news these past couple of weeks.

I am a social worker, and once again I find that my whole profession appears to be on trial by media and politicians.

There seems no doubt that something went badly wrong with the plan to support and protect this little boy. His body bore the marks and scars of a dreadful litany of injuries. Faced with this information, it seems so simple- he should have been rescued much earlier- at one of the many point of contact. Here is a list of contacts with services;

78 contacts with health workers, doctors, social workers and police
2 health visitors
3 doctors
1 mental health worker
1 policewoman
4 social workers
1 family friend;
1 childminder
10 hospital visits (to at least 3 hospitals)
4 visits to clinic
5 parenting classes (the last two weeks before his death)
Seen by GP 14 times
Seen by health visitor 7 times
Mother seen by mental health worker 4 times

(figures taken from Times online- see detailed breakdown of these visits- here.)

The fact is, society needs someone to blame. Despite all the different agencies involved- and despite the fact that all child protection decisions in England are taken by multi-disciplinary conferences, the finger of blame has fallen on social workers. All the other contacts listed above count for little…

Large numbers of us, in the face of this shock, have mutated into mere gobs on legs, iterating and reiterating the last plausible prejudice that sat on us. A terrible thing has happened, it’s all down to X (fill in the prejudice) and someone’s head should bump bloodily down the steps of the Temple of the Sun, to save us from the wrath of the gods.

Our process presumes that it is normally better for a child to stay with the family, even in a household which falls far below the ideal, and social workers who go to their managers with a recommendation to commence care proceedings know that they will have to put up a very strong case.

When you consider the outcomes of the 60,000 looked-after children in our care, this is hardly surprising. Almost threequarters of them will leave care with no formal qualifications. Only one per cent will go on to enter any kind of university education. One fifth of looked-after children are homeless two years after leaving care; 25 per cent of our prison population has been through the care system. Things have to be really bad at home before care looks like a better option.

Yet in other countries the picture is very different. In Germany looked-after children do extremely well, with 95 per cent of children in the German care system going on to vocational education. Crime committed by looked-after children in Germany runs at 5 per cent of the rate of crime committed by those in our care.

Money is important. In Germany most looked-after children live in small community homes, with fewer than 16 residents. By contrast, more than two-thirds of our looked-after children are placed in foster families which cost less than a quarter of a residential placement in Germany.

Money also hangs in the air at case management meetings, and sets up serious conflicts of interest. It is the local authority managers who decide whether to go for care proceedings. They are also the people who will have to find the money to pay for care.

When budgets are tight, the best interests of the child are not always aligned with the best interests of the local authority. In fact the two can often be contradictory. And in those crucial meetings the social worker, the main advocate for the child’s welfare, is often the most junior person in the room.

As a society we need to look again at our priorities. Unsurprisingly, the current social work witch hunt following baby P’s death has already seen a rise in the numbers of kids being removed form parents. Practitioners will almost certainly take less collective risks. Given the pressures on the systems looking after kids in care, this may well be unsustainable.

Is this what we want?

I think the focus on BLAME masks a societal failure to put the needs of kids first. But given the current financial crisis, I fear that finding a scapegoat or two will be the preferred option…

As for me, I will say a prayer for this baby, and his parents. And for the imperfect workers (like me) who work in an imperfect system, and hope that we can make things better.