Everyone Is to Blame: Boundary Wrangles between Social Services Lie at the Heart of the Baby P Case, Argues Marian Brandon, a Leading Government Adviser on Child Abuse

By Brandon, Marian | New Statesman (1996), November 24, 2008 | Go to article overview

Everyone Is to Blame: Boundary Wrangles between Social Services Lie at the Heart of the Baby P Case, Argues Marian Brandon, a Leading Government Adviser on Child Abuse


Brandon, Marian, New Statesman (1996)


The brutal circumstances of the death of Baby Pare hard to bear, and made more harrowing still by the publication of photographs of him, showing the toddler as an icon of childish vulnerability. Gordon Brown says such deaths must never happen again, but the truth is that even if best practice were the norm, it would not be possible to prevent all children dying from abuse.

Our recent study, commissioned by the Department for children, Schools and Families and carried out by a team from the University of East Anglia and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, examined 161 serious case reviews of child death and grave harm through abuse and neglect in England between April 2003 and March 2005. We concluded that the wealth of factors which raise or lower the risk of harm to the child was in most cases too complex for death or serious injury to have been predictable. In the current climate of moral outrage and panic, however, it seems this finding is unacceptable.

Rates of physical and sexual abuse appear to be falling in most high-income countries, including the UK, although not rates of neglect or psychological abuse. However, much abuse goes unrecognised (and hence not reported) and most abused children do not get help. Unlike Baby P, almost half of the children we studied were not known to the children's social care services, but their families were in contact with health visitors and midwives. Many families were also known only to specialist adult services for which the well-being and safety of children were not priorities (an omission, which must change). We found that many older, often suicidal, young people had histories of abuse and neglect. They were challenging to help but were failed by a range of agencies that squabbled over whether they had met their criteria for services. A recent Barnardo's study highlighted the demonisation of adolescents, whose vulnerability goes unnoticed.

Learning the lessons of the "worst cases" can lead to misinterpretation and bad decision making. Although domestic violence, substance misuse and mental ill-health among parents were common, we found no cause-and-effect relationship between this and child death or serious injury. Repeat attendance at accident and emergency departments for babies with minor injuries, or hospital admission (as in Baby P's case), does, however, appear to be a marker of abuse, according to study evidence. Many families live in great adversity, which increases the risk of harm to children, but it is important to remember that most children do not suffer serious abuse in these circumstances.

With hindsight, the individual death of Baby P was preventable. He should have been protected because there were already heightened concerns for his safety. He was the subject of a multi-agency protection plan and had been seen on numerous occasions. The responsibility for protecting him was, appropriately, shared between many agencies, although blame is falling as usual on children's social care. This is wrong: the Children Act 2004 makes clear that all agencies are responsible for safeguarding minors. …

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