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Thursday, November 13, 2008 

How not to learn the lessons of Baby P's death.

If the circumstances of the death of Baby P are all too depressingly familiar, so too has been the reaction to it. While politicians for the most part, excepting yesterday's tawdry antics and an example we shall come to, have sensibly and quite rightly stayed above the fray, the reaction in certain sections of the press is all the less salubrious for both its predictability and its savageness.

The Sun, to focus on but one paper, is demanding the resignation of the five people critically involved, whether they be the head of Haringey's children's services department, Sharon Shoesmith, who has it be must be stated not done herself or her council any favours, the three social workers, and the paediatrician who examined Baby P two days before he died. Whether anything could have been done to save a child that already had a broken back and six broken ribs at that point is impossible to know. Typically, the paper itself is not demanding the sackings; its "readers" are. In his column in the same paper, Kelvin MacKenzie, quite possibly one of the least qualified individuals to comment, demands to know why the baby wasn't taken away at birth from a:

[woman who] came from a family of drunks, never worked and watched porn all day. Her council house — she had to have one, didn’t she? — stank.

Much the same line is pursued tomorrow by Jon Gaunt, a man who himself spent time in care as a child, who variously blames "an unelected and elected Metropolitan elite [who] impose their warped views and social engineering on our country" while additionally "the ultimate responsibility lies with them [Labour] and the Guardianistas they have created in every section of public life."

Such reactions, along with the blaming of the rise of the underclass, the welfare state, social workers, society and everything else in-between are understandable. The natural reaction when something so shocking and apparently preventable happens is to demand for heads to be severed, blame to apportioned and for it to never happen again. Yet the sad roll call of names where much the same has happened before is undeniable both in its power and the lesson that we can never abolish risk, or prevent individuals determined to harm children from being able to do so. From Dennis O'Neil in 1945, to Maria Colwell, Stephen Meurs, John Auckland, Wayne Brewster, Jasmine Beckford, Kimberly Carlile and the most recently notorious case, Victoria Climbié, all the more haunting for the photograph of the smiling, beautiful little girl without an apparent care in the world that always accompanies the reports that mention her. The NSPCC's page of statistics on child homicide notes that the overall rate of child murders has stayed broadly the same since the 70s; things do not appear to be getting worse. However slightly reassuring that is, and it is a reassurance that also means that despite all the advances and countless reviews since then that things have also not got any better, we ought to try to get things into some sort of a perspective.

This is why asking questions like who will resign for Baby P, as the usually admirable Lynne Featherstone does is not the way to go. The Sun puts it even more coldly: "a price must be paid for his life." This is despite no one now being able to resign for Baby P; the chance to save him has gone. Likewise, pretending that resigning or sacking those responsible is in some way going to bring some sort of legacy from his death is similarly doubtful. The result of a witch-hunt, especially against the social workers, is likely to have the opposite effect: more children taken from families into a care system which often does not merit that very name. On the other hand, the system is currently, like with everything else, so heavily loaded with meeting legal requirements set by lawyers that taking a child into care is fraught with difficulty. In Baby P's case, the review notes that on the 25th of July 2007 (PDF, page 4), almost two weeks before he died, social services were advised "that the threshold for initiating care proceedings was not met." This was despite a police investigation into the mother, and two visits to hospital which concluded it was more than possible that his injuries had been the result of abuse. Ed Balls in his statement yesterday spread the blame across the agencies, and the investigation into child safety in Haringey has been implemented as a result.

The best summation I've found of why what has happened will happen again and what ought to be learned and potentially changed to try to prevent it as best we can was from 5 years ago, before the Laming report was released. Dr Chris Hanvey wrote:

As long as we continue, as a society, to have a deep ambiguity about children, seeing them as angels or villains; so long as we refuse to listen to what we already know from research and so long as we refuse to acknowledge that work in child protection is skilled, highly stressful and requires years of experience; until we all take much greater collective and individual responsibility for the safety of vulnerable children within our own communities, we are unlikely to stop the tide.

No blame was implied, no political accusations thrown, no insults levelled at Guardianistas, just how we ought to examine ourselves. Sadly it seems we are doomed to keep repeating these mistakes.

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Any time the media call for lessons to be learned, those lessons usually turn out to be:-

- Jump to conclusions without proper investigation.
- Judge only with the benefit of hindsight.
- Hard cases make good laws, even when future circumstances will be different.
- Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story, and above all
- Pander to prejudice and other negative emotions at the slightest opportunity.

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