Children must have both their safety and innocence protected - Karyn McCluskey

This is two columns in one. Bear with me.

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, 6, died from an unsurvivable brain injury after what prosecutors claim was a "campaign of cruelty". His father and stepmother both deny his murder, with the trial ongoing. PIC: Family Handout/PA Wire

Going into a school at ‘home time’ recently I saw a young child getting into the back of a car. I heard her say to the person driving, “Are we going to contact?” And then, after what must have been a positive answer, I heard her say, “I’M SO EXCITED”.

In that brief exchange, which lasted probably 15 seconds, I know something about this kid’s life. She doesn’t live with her mum, the driver of the car was from social work, there is trauma in this child’s life and in all likelihood, that of her parent.

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What struck me, was that this young child, perhaps seven, spoke the language of the system; contact, case files, review, placements, secure. I’ve known so many young people who have been in care, who speak like apprentice social workers. System language is not the language of love.

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How did we get to the stage that children in the most vulnerable of situations, removed from their parents, are then indoctrinated with professional language that dehumanises their lives to a series of case conferences and processes? It doesn’t speak to me about ‘care’ but about being a cog in a wheel and forgetting this cog was a child.

There is much to be changed about the care system in Scotland – and this language that we infect children with must be part of this change.

Yet, there are two sides to these stories.

On Wednesday, I read about a widely reported ongoing court case about the death of a six-year-old called Arthur. Arthur’s short life was one of pain and trauma. Whilst the court heard allegations of Arthur being force fed salt-laced meals, isolated in the home, starved, dehydrated and routinely beaten are still to be proven in the case, there were 200 audio files made of him whilst he was being ‘punished’.

He can be heard crying and saying repeatedly “no one loves me” and “no one’s going to feed me”. A video from an internal CCTV camera shows him frail just hours before he collapsed and died.

Reading the news is like a special circle of hell sometimes. I couldn’t sleep after reading about it. I wanted someone to save him, keep him safe, to love him, to feed him, and to make sure that he was tucked up in a warm bed at night with a teddy. It didn’t happen.

I wanted a professional to intervene – I wanted someone to have seen the signs, the imminent danger and to have taken him some place safe. But as well as keeping children safe, I also want to keep their innocence and not let them become processed cogs, able to speak in the system’s language. These are not opposing moral universes – both things can be true.

We need to better value and thank the police, social workers and many others who can intervene when they see a child in imminent and serious danger. But all of us as a collective have a role to play. When we come together to care about children, only then will the system get better. And for our children’s sake that needs to happen.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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