WITH the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to pinpoint what could have been done to avoid a catastrophic failure of child protection. The warning signs can seem quite glaringly obvious. A toddler with bruises on his face. A depressed mother who likes to drink. A new boyfriend on the scene who’s spent time in prison. And, most of all, those damning four words: “known to social work”.
But energetic toddlers bump their heads. The vast majority of mothers, depressed or well, sober or drunk, would never deliberately harm their children. Just because someone’s been convicted of a crime in the past, that doesn’t mean they’ll pose a risk to children in the future. And being known to social work is not shorthand for bad character.
Just because someone’s been convicted of a crime in the past, that doesn’t mean they’ll pose a risk to children in the future
The profession came under scrutiny once again on Wednesday night, as BBC Scotland Investigates sought to establish whether the deaths of three young children in Fife in the space of four months were an indicator of a social work department in crisis. Or rather, the programme started from the position that this must have been the case, then invited bereaved relatives, former workers and an SNP ex-councillor to agree.
What’s easy to forget, when we hear grim details about awful cases in which a child has died, is that social workers are not simply professional clypes, tasked with totting up black marks against families before spiriting the children away to better lives in foster care. Yes, risk assessment is part of the job, but so is relationship-building. Sometimes this means supporting people who are desperate for help, and grateful for referrals. Other times it means monitoring people who have already let their children down badly, or committed awful crimes, who at best distrust authority figures seeking to interfere in their lives and at worst despise them.
The positive stories about children and families social work – in which a baby is returned to the care of parents in recovery, or a mum is supported to leave an abusive partner, or grandparents agree a shared-care arrangement with an overwhelmed dad – do not often make the news. The positive stories about criminal justice social work – desistance, detox, making amends – certainly don’t.
The positive stories about children and families social work do not often make the news
The key revelation in the BBC’s documentary, rather crudely titled Fife’s Child Killings: The Untold Story, was that while Madison Horn and her mother were not known to the families and children team, they were known to the social work department via the child’s killer. A significant case review found the two-year-old’s death could not have been anticipated, but an exercise in joining the dots between separate inquiries shows that Kevin Park’s criminal justice social worker failed to protect his client’s partner and her daughter. The daughter was Madison.
It goes without saying that if Madison’s mother had known then what she knows now, she would never have begun a relationship with Park, but in spite of everything her language is measured when she speaks of him. Others may describe him as a monster, but to her he was a human being. Clearly a seriously flawed human being, but it’s an important distinction, and one which every social worker must also be able to make.
When considering the horrifying and heartbreaking cases of Madison, three-year-old Mikaeel Kular and two-year-old Liam Fee, it’s tempting to demand more robust action in each and every instance where a child protection concern is reported. But we simply cannot keep all risky individuals away from children altogether, and responses must be proportionate and fair. For every story hinting at a social work culture of chaos and cover-up, there will be another in which a parent will argue that their loving, protective family has been torn apart by over-zealous workers who fear being blamed for “the next Baby P”, the next Madison, Mikaeel or Liam. And so the cycle continues.
But we simply cannot keep all risky individuals away from children altogether, and responses must be proportionate and fair
Fife Council freely admits that in the case of Liam, who suffered an appalling death at the hands of his mother and her partner, the wool was pulled over everyone’s eyes. After attending the family home to follow up a call about concerning injuries, a social worker wasn’t the only one reassured by the explanation provided: a police officer was too.
The women who were trusted to care for Liam were responsible for his death, but does anyone else share part of the blame? How about Lesley Bate, the former social worker who has admitted she made mistakes in her handling of his case, and was later struck off? Or her manager Karen Pedder, who allowed the case to drift when Bate went off on long-term sick leave, and who was described by the Scottish Social Services Council as “defensive” and “evasive”?
The BBC aimed to uncover “the whole story” about these three deaths, but its documentary neglected to mention what is surely a key context: austerity. We heard of systemic failures in Fife, but nothing about the loss of more than 50 social work management posts in the lead-up to 2014, the year in which Mikaeel, Liam and Madison all died. Did budget cuts have a direct impact on these cases? It’s impossible to say for sure. But if we want to protect children going forward, we cannot expect workers to keep doing more with less, and managers to conjure up cover for those who crumble under the strain. We must remember, amidst all the talk of structures and systems, that they are human too.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.