Editor's Comment: Blaming others puts children at risk

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ECJ Issue 4.6

There’s been a lot about safeguarding in the news this month. First we heard from Anne Coffey MP whose report concluded that sexual exploitation of children is the norm in parts of Manchester. Some of you may have also seen the BBC Panorama film about Baby P.

Both of these stories tell us something about how we, the public, respond to stories that we find hard to stomach. A child’s death, at the hands of their parents, is pretty tough to take. Similarly, child exploitation causes revulsion. The public usually reacts to both, quite understandably, with anger. But anger requires targets for its dissipation, and so scapegoats are found to allow us to can move on.

This process may be therapeutic but it is also deeply problematic for a number of reasons. First, it is unjust. Scapegoats are usually identified because they already carry the burden of discrimination. In Baby P’s case the public picked on social workers, a group of people who are responsible for the dramatic fall in children’s deaths over the last twenty years yet are often vilified in the media. With child sexual exploitation it’s the continual background hum of racism (Which Anne Coffey’s report commendably sought to avoid) and the belief that this is an issue caused by Asian men.

In recent months Every Child Journal has looked at a number of stories that provoke these angry responses: in this edition we look at the sexual exploitation of boys (see page 57), an issue that has been around for years but which has, thanks to Barnardo’s work and the assiduous researchers who produced this report, now for the first time been analysed in detail (see Where’s the Harm, p12).

We also look at self-trolling (see Where’s the Harm, p12), a relatively new phenomenon in which children post comments on-line and then troll themselves. Our story starts with Hannah Smith, a 14 year old school girl who killed herself, apparently a victim of online trolling. The knives were out for Ask.fm the company that apparently did nothing to prevent the trolling, but it later emerged that the comments that had apparently upset her so much were posted by Hannah herself before before she committed suicide. So much of damaging behaviour is counter-intuitive making it all the more difficult to understand. Our incomprehension raises the emotional temperature and cause and blame become confused.

The first thing these stories tell us is that anger may be a natural response, but it doesn’t help solve problems. Indeed, one of the reasons that serious case reviews have been so ineffective in helping people learn from their mistakes is because participants are terrified of being blamed. This emotional mix can spill over into something far more sinister as the Panorama programme discovered. In the serious case review into Baby P, Panorama alleges that Great Ormond Street (strapline: the child, first and always), which ran the clinic in Harringey where the undertrained and understaffed medical team, apparently failed to diagnose the extent of Baby P’s injuries and allegedly hid evidence submitted from the overworked doctors from the serious case review panel which warned the hospital that their clinic was unsafe because of staffing issues. Not only that but then GOSH allegedly offered one of the doctors who had written to them about these matters a six-figure sum to keep quiet about her evidence.

That’s bad enough, but then it also emerged that police had, according to the programme, briefed the media before the review of Baby P was published, pointing the finger at social workers.

And finally, the pivotal story that the doctor who had failed to notice that Baby P had a broken back may have been false, and that these injuries may have occurred after her examination. Any exoneration of her will come too late for her as she suffered what was described as a permanent nervous breakdown as a result of the media onslaught.

These allegations outline what happens when fear and anger are the dominant response to tragedy and when the media and politicians make capital out of tragedies. In these pages, over the last few years, we have run countless articles about interagency working, and how best practice can only be achieved when education, social work, policy and health professionals work together; we have looked at how to conduct serious case reviews in a way to prevent the culture of blame. Yet, if the Panorama programme got it right, the death of Baby P reveals what can only be described as institutional corruption, in part to appease politicians and the media.

Professionals working with vulnerable children deserve better than this. Individuals are caught in the cross fire of institutional blame-seeking and they have a right to expect more from their leaders. If some sections of the media were as interested in protecting children as they are in selling papers, their editors would take a different approach.

Staff on the ground who carry out the day-to-day work with disadvantaged children are always being reminded of the need for better inter-agency working.None of this makes any sense though, if, at the first whiff of reputational damage, the leaders of key institutions turn round and blame each other.

Child abuse is a highly emotive topic. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel anger, but anger must be a spur to a considered response rather than a prelude to a hunt. If institutions like Great Ormond Street and the Police connive to avoid blame as the Panorama programme on Baby P alleged, then the only victims will be the children that they are purporting to protect.

Tim Linehan