ANOTHER week, another report concluding that the death of a child at the hands of his carers could have been avoided. Like Baby P and Daniel Pelka, the fate of seven-year-old Blake Fowler is almost too awful to contemplate. Neglected and abused throughout his short life, he repeatedly drew attention to his ordeal, telling his school, “I get bruises from daddy”, but everyone ignored his testimony and concerns raised by members of his extended family. In all, there were 18 missed opportunities to intervene, including an eyewitness report of a serious assault and multiple injuries.
Blake was from England but, of course, we have had similar scandals north of the Border: Caleb Ness, Declan Hainey and Mikaeel Kular all died terrible, unnecessary deaths. And who does society blame for the inability to protect them? Not their parents. Blake was given vodka to drink and forced to watch pornographic movies, but his mother, stepfather and step-uncle won’t face prosecution (due to lack of evidence).
Instead, the finger is pointed at the doctors, teachers and social workers who failed to act on the information they received or at the flaws in the system that made such failings possible. When children die as a result of neglect or abuse, it is the state we hold accountable.
Strange then that when the Scottish Government tries to introduce a new law to make the line of accountability clearer it faces a backlash from people who think the state should butt out of family life.
Ever since the named person provision, included in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, was first mooted, it has attracted opposition from a weird alliance of political commentators and right-wing Christian groups who seem to believe they – and presumably they alone – should be exempt from scrutiny.
Like latter-day Victoria Gillicks they have fretted over a putative loss of parental rights, although the people who will take on the role – mostly health visitors and teachers – already exert control over our children and have the right to stick their noses into our domestic affairs whenever they see fit.
It’s not that I don’t agree there are problems with the named person provision. There is a lack of clarity over what happens when, for example, children are home-schooled. The Act, as it stands, does not set out a complaints procedure, nor does it prescribe a maximum caseload, meaning those involved could be overwhelmed. And, even if these problems are ironed out, the GIRFEC (Getting It Right For Every Child) policy, already operating in parts of the country, is as liable to fall victim to pressure on resources as any other.
My concern, however, is that the measure is being opposed on ideological rather than logistical grounds by people who, in their self-absorption, have lost track of the point of the exercise, which is not for the named person to be involved with the minutiae of the lives of loving families, but to make sure information about suspected abuse is logged, shared and acted upon. It hasn’t been conceived to annoy middle-class parents who are managing just fine by themselves, thank you, but in the naive hope that we never have to look at a photograph of another dead baby and ask what more we could have done.
The latest storm has revolved around the revelation that the named person could be involved even before the child’s birth. Words such as dystopian and illiberality have been tossed around. The fact the named person could play a “lead role in drawing up antenatal support when the anticipated needs of the new-born baby are not available from routine services” has been repeated as if it’s some sinister twist as opposed to more or less what happens anyway. And if a baby is at risk, the sooner the problem is picked up and appropriate support offered, the better.
The idea we’re going to see children taken away from good – or even merely adequate – parents on a whim seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the scale of neglect social workers encounter and the number of care home places and foster homes available. As for the argument that a named person should only be appointed where a risk has already been identified: how can you identify risk without comprehensive checks and a mechanism for recording concerns? Or are we suggesting some sectors of society – the poor, the jobless, single parents, perhaps – should be subject to more monitoring than others? That’s a far more sinister prospect.
It’s this undercurrent of superiority that upsets me most. Of course, there is a link between deprivation and neglect, but abuse occurs across the social spectrum and the idea authorities should accept on trust it couldn’t happen in your family because you say so smacks of arrogance.
Some abusive parents are consummate liars. Others are convinced they act in their children’s best interests. Theresa Riggi saw herself as the perfect mother to three perfectly turned-out children right up to the point where she stabbed them to death.
So, analyse the named person provision by all means, criticise the government for rushing it through and point out the loopholes in the hopes they can be closed. But don’t act like your parental rights trump the rights of the children in your own and other people’s care. However wonderful you are personally, parents do not always know best. That’s the whole, depressing point.
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