Friday, 26 February 2010

The Khyra Ishaq Tragedy

One of the most chilling things reported about this appalling tragedy is that there appear to have been several members of the public who had concerns about the child's health and welfare, but who did not contact the authorities. Little is known about why people do, or do not, pick-up the phone to register their concerns. One factor may be that their trust in the ability of the authorities to respond has been diminished by repeated negative publicity.

At present too little information is in the public domain to draw firm conclusions about what else went wrong. A lot will turn on what concerns were expressed by the child's school to Birmingham children's social care. The Guardian tells us that there were "repeated warnings" by her deputy headteacher "about her welfare" and reports Mrs Justice King as having said (in the care proceedings relating to Khyra's siblings) that the schools were concerned that the children were not being properly fed.

Clearly a referral of some sort was accepted, because social workers as well as education officials visited the home.  But in the absence of further details we need to be cautious in drawing conclusions.  Hopefully the Executive Summary of the SCR will cast some light on this.

Monday, 8 February 2010

BBC Panorama programme on the Independent Safeguarding Authority - 8/2/10

Th most lucid, and most moving, part of this examination of the Government's vetting and barring scheme was the concluding interview. A former rugby player, who was sexually abused by a teacher as a child, argued eloquently that the Government's whole approach was mistaken. There is, he said, a huge under-reporting of child sexual abuse. The only way to respond is to create systems which encourage child sexual abuse victims to report what is happening to them in a safe environment. The vetting and barring scheme would do nothing to address that. The Government, he said, is looking at the issue completely the wrong way round.

In contrast proponents of the Independent Safeguarding Authority who appeared in the programme came over as dogmatic and confused. In my view hundreds of millions are being spent on ill-conceived measures which do not address the issue and are unlikely to make children safer. Giving some intelligent thought to how we can create those "safe environments" would be a far better way forward.

More data on child abuse related deaths?

There may be anomalies between the trends identified in Pritchard’s and Williams’ study, mentioned in the last post, and a recent report in the Times (“Child abuse deaths still rising despite action after Baby P” 1/2/10).  According to the Times article almost four children per week died or suffered serious injury through abuse or neglect in 2009, said to be a 23% rise on 2008 (186 cases of death or serious injury in England in 2009 compared with 144 in 2008).

It is not clear on what basis these figures, apparently from Ofsted, are compiled or what the long-term trends in this data are. It is, however, said that they were obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, suggesting that they are not routinely published.

Regularly published, reliable statistics on child abuse related deaths and injuries are essential information for anyone concerned in providing or monitoring child protection services. If Ofsted is in possession of this type of data it should be made publicly available on a regular basis. 

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Child deaths - trends

We must be cautious in drawing strong conclusions from the analysis of WHO data on child abuse related deaths (CARD) undertaken by Colin Pritchard and Richard Williams (British Journal of Social Work - forthcoming - reported by the BBC on 4th February 2010). The analysis shows not only a welcome reduction in the rate of CARD over the period 1974-2006, but an improvement in the ranking of England and Wales in this respect relative to other developed countries.

There are many issues with international comparisons of this sort, not least different diagnostic and coronial practices in different jurisdictions. While Pritchard and Williams are right to point out that their findings may be a reason for "cautious satisfaction about the progress being made" it seems to me a step too far to conclude that this is reliable evidence of improvements in the child protection systems in England and Wales. There are too many compounding variables to be sure what the causes of such trends are.

It would be very sad if this careful academic study was used by careless commentators to foster any sense of complacency about how effective our child protection services are. The popular press are only too ready to draw unjustified conclusions from the thankfully rare cases where the child protection system fails disastrously. Those of us who deplore such scaremongering must be careful not to make the same mistake in the opposite direction.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Clear messages about the Family Courts

Two recent research studies give a clear picture of children and young people's views of the family courts.

Reporting the interim findings of a study undertaken by Dr Julia Brophy of Oxford University and funded by the Children's Commissioner for England, a press release by 11 Million states that almost all the children interviewed so far are opposed to the media being present in the family courts and to reporting their findings. The children interviewed were also very opposed to journalists having access to medical and other expert reports, saying that they would unwilling to share information with doctors and other professionals if they thought the press would have access to it.

In similar vein another recent study of children's views of family court cases, this time conducted by Cafcass (Private Law Consultation: "How It Looks To Me"),  reports that many children and young people not only wanted more opportunities to tell the court their views, but also were concerned about the confidentiality of the information put before the court.

The overwhelming weight of all the available research evidence points in the same direction. Children and young people subject to family court proceedings are intensely concerned about their privacy. They fear having initmate details of family life aired in public and, if they think that is likely to happen, they will keep quiet. Research conducted as part of a consultation in 2007 was taken very seriously by the then Justice Secretary,  Lord Falconer. The Government's response to this consultation concludes: "In line with the overwhelming evidence from children and young people and the groups which support, protect and represent them, we now believe that the right course of action is not to proceed with this proposal (to allow the media access)."

Sadly Jack Straw has taken a different view and legislation currently before Parliament will, if passed, permit the media wide access to the family courts. The effect on both private and public cases will be substantial. In particular there is a very real danger that abused and neglected children will not co-operate fully with the court process, making it much harder to protect them and to ensure that the court decides in their best interests.