We must learn from child death tragedies

Better communication among social, health and policing organisations is still needed to protect other vulnerable children. Picture: PA
Better communication among social, health and policing organisations is still needed to protect other vulnerable children. Picture: PA
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POLICE, health and social groups have to work together to provide support and protection for everyone, says Harry Stevenson.

Last week the BBC showed a programme on Peter Connolly and the impact of his death on Haringey Council and the people involved in his care. It was a stark reminder of the horrendous circumstances in which Peter lived and died. Seven years on, it is no less shocking.

The number of children dying at the hands of their parents has not changed in decades, but the circumstances of the ones we remember, the ones that hit the headlines, are so awful that we remember their names: Victoria Climbie, Peter Connolly, Brandon Muir.

We all know that the people responsible for the death of these children are the people who killed them or let their deaths happen.

But after each tragedy, there is always a review to consider the lessons we can learn, to look more closely at the roles of professionals involved in the lives of the children.

For each significant case review, no matter which child it concerns, nor the circumstances of their death, there are almost always communication issues. There are bits of information that, had they been pieced together and shared, might have triggered a response that may have prevented the awful tragedy of a child losing their life in horrible circumstances.

How can we improve?

Social work, police, health, housing and education all have the same job to do: we all provide services to the public. In protecting children we all have a responsibility to work well together.

It is not just significant case reviews that throw up consistent themes. Public sector reform has been an ongoing process for decades and each report, review and piece of research says the same thing: we will deliver better public services, if services work better together.

Fifty years ago the Wheatley Commission criticised public services for the lack of joint working and for fragmented and poorly integrated service responses and so on.

The Christie Commission on the future delivery of public services, published in 2011, had many of the same conclusions.

We are still working on it.

Perhaps we should all sign up to the well known principle of “progress not perfection” because, no matter what we do, people will still get sick, people will still be cruel to one another. Perhaps the more realistic target is to try to reach a position where we can say “yes we did everything we could”; where the significant case review says “agencies shared all relevant information and worked well together”.

I don’t know if that is possible: we work with people, people who are not always predictable; people are our greatest asset, but people also make mistakes.

We can, though, get to a place where, no matter which service we are employed by, we are all pulling in the same direction, we are all focused on getting things right for the people who rely on us.

It is about putting our money where our mouth is and focusing on the person or people we are working for. The jargon is “outcomes” but the point is everything we do should be about the people we support and protect, and they are all the same people.

It is a lesson we need to keep at the forefront of our minds as we enter integrated arrangements between the health service and social work services. The focus at present is on adults and older people and the same principles apply: we need to work across organisations and make sure that we are all working for the best interests of people.

As these new arrangements develop, we also need to make sure that we still work as well with the parts of the organisations that remain: that adult social care is linked with children’s services; that police and local authorities and health services continue to improve the way we work together.

It is not easy to get all of this right, but it is easier if professionals across all sectors maintain a focus on why we do what we do. We need to see each person as a person, not a broken leg, not a quiet child, not a difficult adolescent, not an offender, but a person – a person in need of support and sometimes protection.

If we keep that in mind, maybe we can be all we can for everyone.

• Harry Stevenson is president of Social Work Scotland



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