The Sunday Times logo

Panic is not a solution

The Sunday Times, September 29 1985

By Brian Deer, Social Affairs Correspondent

"WHY?" was the question everyone was asking last week about the murder of Heidi Koseda, the little girl who was starved to death by her stepfather. It was the same thing we wanted to know after the killings of Jasmine Beckford and Tyra Henry. Why did the public agencies specifically responsible for their protection let them down?

It is easy to attach blame to individuals. In Heidi's case, the NSPCC's inspector fabricated reports. Jasmine Beckford's social worker rarely saw the child. The social workers in Tyra Henry's case left the little girl in the clearest danger of attack.

These instances have alarmed the public and taken a heavy toll on the reputation of social workers. An opinion survey by Gallup after the Beckford and Henry trials - but before the Koseda case came to court - showed that 45% of those asked had read or heard something to make them view social workers less favourably.

Observers with long memories last week pointed out that social work got a similar battering 12 years ago after the public inquiry into the death of Maria Colwell, aged 7, who was killed by her stepfather while under the supervision of Sussex social services. In that case, as in last week's, neighbours pleaded for the NSPCC to intervene.

After the Colwell case the morale of public agencies was shattered and, in response to the widespread accusation that they should never have left Maria with her family, social workers became more cautious, and more inclined to take children into care.

Place-of-safety orders, granted by magistrates to allow the emergency removal of a child from its parents, jumped from 214 in the year ending March 1973 to 353 the following year, after the Colwell inquiry sitting - and to 596 in the year ending March 1975, after the report was published. The annual rise before the case was only 10.

There is no doubt that the publicity over Maria's death led to this switch in attitudes. Martin Davies, professor of social work at East Anglia University, says: "Every media exposure means there is a consequential tightening of procedures and also social workers making more effort to cover themselves against criticism."

But even by the mid-1970s, doubts were beginning to emerge about the new tougher policy. Social work is about balancing risks, it was argued, and indignant social workers insisted that assessing those risks should not be the province of journalists, or at the whim of sensational headlines.

They argued that in trying to judge the risk to a child from violent parents, the side of the calculation often forgotten by outsiders was the different sort of damage that can be done to a child by taking it into care. Residential homes are obviously a poor alternative to family life, and perhaps a third of all fosterings break down. As Christine Hammond of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering says: "You can make care through adoption and fostering as good as you can, but it is not a real substitute." And so by the end of the decade, the accepted view was that the job of social services was to support children in their homes and to help the family together.

The shape of that support had by then fully evolved: counselling parents about health and housing, teaching them how to discipline and suggesting how to show affection, providing advice and companionship in drop-in centres, finding nursery places for children under five.

Such preventive work, however, means greater risks and also requires able and well-trained social workers, who need to adopt a supportive attitude, but at the same time keep the alertness necessary to spot the potential child-killer among the much larger number of parents who abuse in isolated outbursts of anger or frustration.

This is where the system has broken down. In recent years, training has been poor and tight financial controls on local government have not helped to improve it. Social workers have become "generalists", dealing with every problem from old people, to the handicapped and delinquent youths. The special problem of child abuse and the specialist skill required to deal with it, have been submerged in the deluge of other work.

Now, with the panic beginning to set in again, the balance will inevitably swing back towards the easy solution of taking more children into care. "If we are being blamed for the fact that the risks don't always work out right, then we will play safe," says one social work team leader. "We are bound to think that 'this could happen to me' when we see what happens to the social worker involved."

But social workers didn't kill Jasmine, Tyra or Heidi, a fact which their spokesmen laboured last week to little effect. It is true that their failings allowed these killings to take place. But forgetting to see a child, leaving a baby in a dangerous home or pushing a file to the bottom of the stack, are all-too-human failings. It does not make it any easier or any better for social services to swing the policy from the extreme of taking very few children into care to the opposite extreme of taking almost every endangered child into care.

Somehow we have to arrive at the correct balance between social care and family life. The central issue, the risk to children, is not going to change. Valerie Howarth, social serves head for Brent, where Jasmine Beckford died, says: "What people don't understand is that we deal with those risks on behalf of the community, and whatever we do, those risks won't go away."

Topic: Child abuse and killings by parents

Copyright, Brian Deer. All rights reserved. No portion of this article on child abuse and killings by parents, may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of the author. Responses, information and other feedback are appreciated - via the homepage.