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Thursday 8th November 2012 | 20:00
The House of Commons Education Committee report on the child protection system in England is entitled ‘Children First’. The truth is, because children don’t vote, they’ve never been able to hold politicians accountable and, as a result, they’ve never been ‘first’. Repeated reports have been thorough in their description of the challenges faced by the child protection system. All the aspirational statements glow off the page. There is the right mixture of outrage at systemic failures and acknowledgement that there are dedicated workers who want the best for the most vulnerable children of this country.
The trouble is we seem to produce these good reports almost biannually, driven into scrutiny by scandals. For weeks the Jimmy Savile narrative has dominated the news because child abuse has entered spaces too close for comfort. It’s no longer in the long-distance ghettoes involving ‘feckless’ parents; it’s close up and exposing.
I’ve been working with children who have been harmed for more than 25 years. I can honestly tell you that nothing has changed. The same grim stories and statistics play themselves out. One of the first cases I ever dealt with was of a teenage girl who disclosed abuse, was not protected robustly and the perpetrator managed to wire her to the mains and electrocute her to death. 25 years later I’m reading a report that says we’re failing to protect teenagers who are being abused.
It’s actually failure of imagination that is preventing us from having a child protection system we’d be proud of. The structure needs a radical redesign. We are very good, on the whole, at assessing and identifying risk but we fail to respond to it consistently and appropriately. In very poor areas a culture has developed where social work departments try not to take cases because demand outweighs resources. There’s also a lot of time and money wasted in trying to bat children between mental health and social care, with interventions frequently sabotaged due to lack of parental commitment.
Understated is the bleak fact that large numbers of children are now being chronically abused in gangs. Maltreated children often demonstrate great courage; they seek help and, when given it, they endeavour to reconnect with hope. I’m afraid our politicians are yet to discover the same sense of aspiration in addressing the child protection system in this country. Why not appoint visionary thinkers, allow practitioners to tell the truth about the failings of the system and then treasure what works, complimenting it with new structural possibilities and clinical paradigms?
Believe me, just because a good report was written, it doesn’t mean a good job was done. The children are waiting.