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Leading article The Week

Respectful uncertainty

The Spectator on the plight of Britain’s vulnerable children

12 August 2009

12:00 AM

12 August 2009

12:00 AM

The Spectator on the plight of Britain’s vulnerable children

Families are the raw materials from which society is constructed. They constitute the foundations of our civilisation. And it follows that there are few more unnatural actions that the state can undertake than to invade the relationship between parent and child or even to sever it. And while there are occasions when it must interfere, the state has a profound moral duty to ensure that its intervention is both necessary and constructive.

When David Cameron talks of a ‘broken society’, it is of those families who cannot nurture children that he speaks: the mothers who don’t know how to love because they were never loved; the temporary fathers who can barely look after themselves, let alone provide for a family; adults swept into cycles of abuse because they themselves were abused. It was into such an environment that Peter Connelly, Baby P, was born. And it is perhaps to be expected that the adults who surrounded him — and whose faces the public has now seen — attracted the attention of social workers. But while it was right that the authorities intervened, the nature of that involvement, we know now, was tragically wrong.


Despite 60 visits by social and health workers in Haringey, it seems that no one properly sought to understand the circumstances in which Peter lived. While the disreputable state of his home arrangements was obvious, social workers missed the greatest peril to the child — the fact that his mother Tracey lived with a violent boyfriend. Soon after Steven Barker moved in, detectives finally concluded, every item of Peter’s clothing was stained with blood. Despite his mother’s repeated arrest — she was told she would not be prosecuted for abuse for a second time just days before Peter died — the authorities seemed incapable or unwilling to take the action required to protect him.

Instead, Haringey social services, clinging to a hopeless doctrine known as ‘Solution-Focused Brief Therapy’, followed the line of least resistance: crossing their fingers and hoping that Peter’s chocolate-smeared face was not covered to disguise bruising, that the discharge from his ear and rash did emanate from garden play, that the finger marks apparent on his body were merely the result of ‘rough and tumble’.

Perhaps in isolation, these excuses might, just conceivably, have been convincing. Taken together with a GP’s repeated cautions, and with the history of violence in the household, they were not.

Since Peter’s death, more than 30 children under the age of five have been murdered or died of abuse. Yet the 30,000 children on the child protection register only feature in mainstream political debate occasionally. The plight of Britain’s vulnerable children vanishes from our public discourse for years at a time before another grotesque example — Chelsea Brown, Ainlee Labonte, Lauren Wright, Victoria Climbié — reminds us that the system we pay for doesn’t work.

In his inquiries, Lord Laming has already told us where the fundamental problems lie: the rate of staff turnover in children’s social services stands at 10 per cent. In some authorities half of the staff have been qualified for less than a year. He describes child social work as a ‘Cinderella service’ with ‘low morale, poor supervision, high case-loads, under-resourcing and inadequate training’. These are systemic problems — but ‘systems’ won’t save children like Peter Connelly; that can only be achieved by individuals deploying good judgment. We have seen the lethal consequences of cuddly credulity. We have seen the faces of those who tormented Peter to his final breath. The moment has come for social workers to adopt what Lord Laming has termed ‘respectful uncertainty’ — lest we find ourselves in a few years’ time asking the same ghastly questions all over again.


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