Our country and its ill-advised government are in danger of putting children further at risk by allegedly making them safer. The latest hair brained plan to prosecute various officials who apparently cover up abuse in its different forms without giving new and real power to those tasked with this job is I’m afraid doomed to failure.
It will fail, not because of a willingness to do the right thing, but because the police, the CPS, budgets and the judiciary will all get in the way. On top of that, you will have the lobbies accusing the system in all its forms of robbing children from loving families.
Why do I say this?
Let me be clear from the outset. Abuse is a crime and not doing anything about it when someone knows something is also a crime. But as ever, what happens when someone suspects or knows something and what support and help will they get to deal with it?
Does this extend to children outside the care system and how will the law define this?
What will happen to parents who don’t report something that they suspect?
It is incredibly complex and murky and leaves so many unanswered questions.
The reason is this: to declare answers or to write new law based on bad practice or criminal activity is wrong. Of course, there have been terrible cases widely reported in the media and where wrong doing is identified it should always be condemned and acted upon. But it is not the norm, no matter what the media or ill-informed politicians like David Cameron think.
Let me give an example.
A young girl is in the care of a local authority in a residential home. A car pulls up late at night and the girl leaves the home and jumps in the car and disappears for a few hours. The question you are asking is this:
Why wouldn’t the home stop her leaving?
Why wouldn’t they report it to safeguarding officials and the police?
Here’s the answer. In my experience, they do.
Firstly though, what about stopping her leaving? Imagine the scenario.
Care Worker: “You can’t go out. It’s late, it’s past 10 and you need to be in bed.”
Girl: “I’m going. You can’t stop me.”
Care Worker: “You’re not leaving. You’ve got school in the morning.”
Girl: “I’m going. You can’t stop me.”
Care Worker: “You can’t leave. The doors locked. We need to keep you here for your own safety.”
Girl: “I’m going. You can’t stop me and if you do I will report you for assault.”
Care Worker: “Look the doors are locked. It really is safer and better if you stay home tonight. Come back!”
Trouble is she’s gone.
But why haven’t the home stopped her?
The doors locked and she can’t get out can she?
All correct except that she has just pressed the fire alarm which unlocks all the doors whilst at the same time setting the siren going waking up the whole house who then come rushing to see what’s happening. It won’t be a surprise to hear other kids cheering her on and having a go at the carers amid the mayhem. Health and safety dictates that they must be able to get out quickly and the kids know how! It’s not a secure unit.
Perhaps then it would be better to manage this quietly with as little fuss as possible? Let’s look at that scenario then.
The girl’s gone out. She’s followed in the car by a care worker to see where she has gone and what she gets up to. The care worker sees her with older men and disappears in a house. It’s reported to the police. They won’t investigate unless a crime is committed. It’s not a priority. They should have kept the girl at home. They ask questions:
Is she back now?
Has she reported anything untoward?
Do you have any descriptions of the men?
Do you or the girl know who he/they are? It’s her boyfriend/friends she says and she wants to be there with him/them.
No evidence to take to the CPS is there?
And if anyone is arrested, then they will be well represented by lawyers in a mind tangling investigation with vulnerable kids being cross examined and interrogated. Enter legal and moral mine field number 1.
I present this scenario as something that probably happens regularly up and down the land in one way or another. Not just in children’s homes but family homes too.
Should the parents be prosecuted as well?
What if professionals know this is happening in a family home and want to take action?
Where’s their evidence?
Take the child into care for their own protection?
Do that and you enter legal and moral mine field number 2 full of pit falls, adverse reactions and threats to social care who are snatching children. Don’t think this doesn’t happen because it does.
So, what to do?
Unless real power and real finance accompanies this area of social care and support, it will not work. This is not a general call for more money or a moan about cuts and their impact. It’s about the real life experiences of those the public trust and to an extent, demand, look after their children in all the different scenarios you can imagine in schools, hospitals, care settings and yes, at home too.
We could lock up all the children who are believed to be at risk to protect them but will those doing the locking up be supported? We do have secure homes for our children but these are only for the most troubled of young people. To lock up and deny liberty to our young people because of suspicions will be looked upon with extreme scepticism by much of the public and I can understand why.
The government’s answer to this appears to be to ask Local Authorities to look at their risk assessment tools to check they are making the right decisions. This is what is known as thresholds which social care professionals use and regularly monitor to make sure consistency of decision making exists. It is not an exact science and often thresholds end up being stretched when outside pressure bears down with an insatiable public, press or government seeking quick and easy answers to complex problems. People become risk averse which is only human.
Great if it saves a child from harm but what if the decision is flawed?
What if the evidence, once thoroughly examined is found wanting?
Witch hunt time for the social care and other professionals who made it.
On top of that, if as I say, you base solutions on what are yes, high profile breakdowns in systems in a city or town where criminality has been ignored and denied for quite often very specific though totally unacceptable reasons, you will create bad law and bad solutions.
And notice as well how the focus is all on the local authority and will continue to fall on them. Not the schools. Not the hospitals or police. Not the courts and the lawyers who bleed coffers dry with long drawn out cases designed all too often to be adversarial rather than cooperative and fact based.
Focus must be on the whole system and the people and professionals in them too.
Our system in this country is not as bad as screaming headlines often portray. In fact, in the main it is good. But, unless we have a child safeguarding system based on good practice and not learning lessons from bad, then we will never improve as much as politicians want and loudly demand when they suddenly feel under pressure themselves. This just undermines the very people we ask to do the job in the first place. Do not tar everyone with the same brush.
In a time of never ending cuts amid unprecedented austerity, to put yet more onus and pressure on a service which is creaking at the seams, often for these very reasons, is doomed to long term failure. It will drive away the very professionals you want because either the demand is too great or the threat of sanction and jail too frightening.
That will make our children less safe.