The second winning essay in the 2014 Worth School Essay Competition is entitled: The death of Victoria Climbié: Have lessons learnt been successful? Its author is 15-year-old Gurdip Ahluwalia. Having watched a documentary about her death in 2000, he said: “It really shocked me how the signs of abuse hadn’t been acted upon properly. The tragedy provoked a lot of changes in the law and her story and its impact on society still resonates with the public.” Read Gurdip’s essay as he writes about these…
On 25th February 2000 eight year old Victoria Climbié died of hypothermia in North Middlesex Hospital as a result of months of some of the most horrific child abuse in Britain’s recent history (a post mortem into Victoria’s death found 128 injuries on her body). In the aftermath of Victoria’s death child protection came under scrutiny from all sectors of society – from social workers to Cabinet ministers. As a result of the publicity and the subsequent enquiry by Lord Laming following Victoria’s death, her name has become synonymous with reforms to the child protection legislation in the UK. Whilst many consider that the changes in the law following Victoria’s death came too late to protect Victoria but have been the saviour of following generations of potential victims, I would question whether the changes go far enough.
The following is a quote from the Laming Report:
“The food would be cold and would be given to her on a piece of plastic while she was tied up in the bath […] She would eat like a dog […] Except, of course that a dog is not usually tied up in a plastic bag full of excrement.”
This is merely a snapshot of the treatment that Victoria suffered at the hands of her aunt, Marie-Therese Kouao and her aunt’s boyfriend, Carl Manning in the 18 months that Victoria spent with them. The reporting of Victoria’s treatment at the hands of her aunt resulted in a public outcry and for demands for changes to the legislation for the protection of children. The most marked change was the updating of the Children’s Act 1989 to the Children’s Act 2004. It is widely acknowledged that the changes to the law came about as a result of Victoria’s death and in particular the enquiry into her death led by Lord Laming.
Perhaps therefore the place to start is the enquiry into Victoria’s death led by Lord Laming. The enquiry commenced in April 2001 and culminated in a Report in January 2003. The Report came three years after Victoria’s death and it made 108 recommendations. At the centre of the recommendations that were adopted into legislation as the Children’s Act 2004, were a national database (called Contact Point) containing information on every child in England and the appointment of a Children’s Commissioner. In addition, for the first time in legislation, two positions were named as accountable for what happened in Children’s Services – the Director and the Executive Member.
Contact Point was supported by the Labour government of the time and was legalised under Section 12 of the Children’s Act 2004. The database contained information including name, gender, address, date of birth and contact details of the child’s parents / guardians and educational institutions attended. However in August 2010 the current Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition government abolished the database without any consultation. Reasons cited by the government for its abolition included the issue of doctor-patient confidentiality being breached as medical reports were included on the database, which were then available to over 300,000 CRB (now DBS) checked users.
Further concerns were raised after a study in Leeds in 2006 showed 70,000 cases of attempted inappropriate access of the database. This raised concerns as to whether paedophiles were attempting to access the resource. Contact Point highlights how the adoption of the Laming recommendations could be viewed as a knee jerk reaction to the horrific death of Victoria without proper consideration of the implications of the implementation of such recommendations.
As stated above, for the first time in legislation two named positions were stated as accountable. The Children’s Act 2004 introduced far clearer guidelines on accountability, particularly because after the death of Victoria the person who bore the brunt of criticism was her social worker, Lisa Arthurworrey. Arthurworrey had been Victoria’s social worker for a total of 211 days between July 1999 and February 2000. It transpired during the ensuing enquiry that Arthurworrey was a novice, having only 18 months’ work experience and no experience of completing a child protection investigation. It was acknowledged that Arthurworrey had been let down by her seniors: hence the introduction of two named professionals who would be accountable.
Despite these positive changes to the Law, further cases, bearing many similarities to Victoria’s case, have arisen. Most notorious is that of Baby P. Just three years after the implementation of the Laming recommendations, Baby P died at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s brother in 2007. After months of enduring ruthless abuse, aged just 17 months Baby P died and it would transpire that Haringey Social Services – the same social services responsible for Victoria – had failed to protect another young innocent child.
Due to the changes brought about by Victoria’s death the Head of Haringey Social Services, Sharon Shoesmith, was dismissed. Shoesmith subsequently brought successful legal proceedings for procedurally unfair dismissal. After Baby P’s death Lord Laming conducted an enquiry into his death. In essence his Report found that professional practice and judgment was being compromised by an overly bureaucratic system where individuals were more concerned with tick-box assessment and recording than the child (ren) at the centre of any intervention.
The Coalition government appears to recognise that the current legislation on child protection in the UK is lacking. In the early years of the Coalition it commissioned four Reports into the importance of the early intervention in children’s lives. Particular importance was given to the Munro Report (2011) which made comprehensive recommendations which were essentially child-centric and saw a move away from form filling and box ticking. Unfortunately despite the initial response of the Coalition agreeing to implement nearly all of the recommendations of the Munro Report, little has changed and the recommendations are yet to become law.
I consider that there are two things that are essentially impeding the progress of child protection legislation. Firstly the Munro recommendations are an ideal based on early intervention, professional continuity (in terms of the same care professionals dealing with a particular child); a holistic approach to child protection – namely that social workers think in an adaptive manner where the core question is “what is the right thing for children?”. Such recommendations fail to recognise that the attitude of senior managers has not changed – social workers continue to be assessed on the number of visits they do rather than the quality of those visits, paperwork continues to be cumbersome and ultimately there is a lack of funds.
Secondly, and in my view most importantly, child protection legislation appears to be based on the false premise that all children will be safe as long as the rules are followed. This is not the case and I believe that ultimately there are those who, despite any legislation, will continue to ill-treat and ultimately cause the death of innocent children.
Therefore in response to the question that I posed in the title of this essay I would respond that whilst some progress may have been made since Victoria Climbié’s death in February 2000 there is still a long way to go and unfortunately this will require the backing of a government that is not merely responding to the latest horror story that hits the headlines and pricks the conscience of society at large.
The first of the two 2014 Worth Essay winners was featured in October.