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Failing Children

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The following article was published on the website of Progress



The country’s attention has again focussed on the deaths of children with the news that child protection in Doncaster is to be investigated, this following on the heels of the Baby P case in Haringey.  This attention is nothing new go back to the 1970s and the Maria Colwell enquiry, and then through the decades with Jasmine Beckford, Tyra Henry and Victoria Climbie. These are just some of the names of children whose deaths from abused horrified and angered the public. But the truth is that every year children die at the hands of their parents, through neglect, through deliberate injury or by being murdered. Between April 2007 and March 2008 Ofsted were notified of 189 child deaths where it was expected that Serious Case Reviews would be held.


Some children will die however good local child protection services are, but that shouldn’t excuse the too many occasions where local services fail to act when they should and could have done. The deaths of seven children since 2004 in Doncaster has led to the criticism of local Social Services that they failed to take action. Three Serious Case Reviews have already taken place and executive summaries appear on the Doncaster Council website. Interestingly, when examined in detail none of the deaths are attributed to poor social work or care by other agencies.


The first child died age 3 months in October 2004, his death attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome associated with co-sleeping (which means children sleeping in the same bed as a parent). It was therefore a tragic accident. The second child was 7 months old and died in May 2006. Again the death was attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but the coroner noted that the mother’s alcohol misuse was a contributory factor. The case review of the third child is less detailed, but says that the 10 month old child died due to natural causes in December 2007.


So, while three babies died, none of the deaths were directly attributable to parental failure. We should be careful before we label as failing any particular local authority ahead of a more thorough review. What is clear from all of these reviews is that that the work undertaken by Social Services, and other agencies, was not adequate and policies and procedures were not followed.


Policies and procedures in child protection are often developed out of the lessons from child deaths. Approximately every two three years the Government produces research on past cases, collating the lessons for practitioners. In addition, the NSPCC collates information on its website from Serious Case Reviews taken from case summaries which local councils produce. This is a ready resource giving access to recommendations in the child protection field from across the country. Yet taken together this makes depressing reading - case by case the faults in the child protection system are repeated.


When individual reviews are undertaken it is not difficult to identify the failures in case management. Many situations concerning child protection involve making judgements, and these are rarely easy. But in too many cases there is the failure to take the correct action in situations where children need protection. As I said in my Progress article of 29th November, fundamentally this comes down to the need for better trained, more experienced and better supported workers with a robust management and inspection system. (http://www.progressonline.org.uk/Magazine/article.asp?a=3608).


The creation of Children’s Services Departments across the former Social Services and Education Departments should not impede the ability of local authorities to protect children. However, a quick look at the Ofsted Triennial Safeguarding Report lists a wide range of concerns that local authorities are expected to respond to. The 2008 report lists 13 different categories of vulnerable children, from those in the care system, to children in secure settings and children in the armed forces. Surely it must be time for Children’s Services to focus more on the especially vulnerable children who are victims of abuse.


The overview reports produced by the Government identify a number of key factors which can help professionals identify those most at risk. For example - babies are especially vulnerable in the review of cases between 2003 & 2005 nearly half the children were under the age of 1. Children of families who move around the country a lot are more at risk as professionals lose track of them. Families where domestic violence, alcohol or drug abuse is a factor often pose particular dangers.


When Labour first came into government in 1997 it took significant steps to address the poor quality of services to children in care. Additional resources were made available to improve these services and the Secretary of State wrote to every councillor reminding them that these were their children and they needed to behave like their parents. A similar drive and initiative is needed now. If it is possible to find experienced professionals to review cases and make recommendations when a serious incident has taken place, surely it should be possible to have that experience used to support and develop staff undertaking the work. Without that sort of investment in staff doing a demanding and difficult job we will continue to learn of our failure to protect children.


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