When Does Safeguarding Become Endangerment?
“Just as it shouldn’t take multiple accusations and a wrongful conviction to convince the police that a woman’s accusations of rape are not genuine, it shouldn’t take only ‘I think that there might be a problem’ for children to be removed from a family.”
In the 1970’s, when my daughter was barely two, we had a minor car accident. Car seats weren’t what they are today, her seat unclipped itself from the back seat and she was flung into the back of the front passenger seat. She didn’t appear to be seriously hurt, but a large bruise began to form on her face so we took her to A&E for a check up.
I was distraught. Upset for my daughter and her hurt, I was also terrified that someone would say that it was a deliberate injury, which of course it wasn’t. Common sense was more common in those days.
When it became clear exactly why I was so upset, a kindly nurse sat me down with a cup of tea and assuaged my fears. She reassured me that nurses and doctors were sensible and experienced people who could tell the difference between an accident and mistreatment. She didn’t add ‘most of the time’. It wasn’t necessary. No one in those days expected ‘experts’ to be perfect in quite the same way as they do today.
No-one took my daughter from me, banished her father or otherwise upended our family.
Fast forward a very few years and I was told of a five year old girl who presented at school with a bruise across the small of her back. She was asked ‘Who did that to you?’ and she answered ‘Daddy did it’.
Immediately, the full force of the Social Services came into swing, Daddy was removed from the family and an investigation began to take place. Daddy wasn’t even asked what had happened, just presented with an ultimatum – leave the family home or face charges for assault immediately.
After several days the little girl was taken to the family doctor for a check up and the doctor asked her ‘How did this happen?’
‘I was playing tug-of-war with Daddy and I let go. I fell on the table and hurt my back.’
‘Did you think this was Daddy’s fault?’ was the next question.
‘Yes. He didn’t catch me’ was the reply.
It was only at this point and with this information that the Social Worker thought to ask Daddy for his version of events, and it matched completely with his daughter’s. The case was closed immediately and Daddy returned to the family, leaving the little girl with attachment issues that took months, perhaps years, to resolve.
Surprise as it may be to some, children suffer all manner of scraps and scrapes during their childhoods – bruised knees learning to walk, broken bones falling off bikes, scraped elbows or noses falling off swings, lost teeth tumbling off skateboards – all manner of things.
It’s no surprise to anyone, unfortunately, that some children suffer injuries at the hands of the adults in their lives; adults who should care for and nurture them, and that some children have even died as a result.
What happened in those intervening years that had common sense flying out of the window, professionals unable to trust their experience, and a parent so easily and so quickly (and falsely) condemned as an abuser?
In a word, safeguarding. The notion that not only must children be kept safe, they must be kept safe at all costs; the notion that we can make a safe world for our children and remove all vestiges of harm from their lives.
Would that we could, but let’s add a little realism here. What we are forgetting is the nature of the human condition and that anger and violence are part of that. Put simply, we can make attempts to manage it, but it is utterly unrealistic to think that we can eradicate it altogether, especially when our society is so focussed on male violence and seems to virtually ignore female violence.
As long as we remain this blinkered, children will continue to be unnecessarily emotionally harmed, by the State and possibly by well-meaning adults (but too often those with malicious intent) and condemned to a life dealing with trauma and attachment issues.
Those out to harass, abuse and intimidate another person - for whatever reason - too often find no boundaries put on their behaviour. We need the facility for the authorities to have the ability to say ‘enough!’ in the face of clearly malicious intent.
Just as it shouldn’t take multiple accusations and a wrongful conviction to convince the police that a woman’s accusations of rape are not genuine, it shouldn’t take only ‘I think that there might be a problem’ for children to be removed from a family. Nor should it take families screaming that there is a problem, only for them to be ignored because the social workers can’t get access to the child at risk. We, as with so many issues currently, need a better balance. Professional judgement has been jettisoned in the quest to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
It is a sad fact that not all parents have parental instincts and (shock! horror!) not all women have maternal instincts. Children are killed for many reasons, the mental illness of their killers being very low on the list - and anger, resentment, power, inadequacy, all feature much more prominently.
In 2018-19, 94 children were killed in the UK - 86 in England, 4 in Northern Ireland, 3 in Scotland and 1 in Wales. In the 5 years from 2014/15 to 2018/19 there was an average of 84 child (under 18 years old) homicides per year, the majority of them carried out by a parent or step-parent. The figures are distressing but consistent.
Human nature is at work. It’s the same aspect of human nature that allows even a pre-teen child to kill a child – Mary Bell aged 10 in 1968 and Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both aged 10 in 1993. Shock is proclaimed when teenagers kill, but murder is not the preserve of adults.
Accepting it all as inevitable is not what I’m suggesting, and mitigating it is a permanent struggle, but punitive and anticipatory actions cause different harms. No one will deny that the wilful killing of a child is horrific, but it is disingenuous to pretend that they can be entirely stopped and ludicrous to kid ourselves that we can reduce the harm to children by removing them from parents as routine or with other, purely punitive measures.
The then Education Secretary, Nadim Zahawi, declared in 2021 after a spate of press reports of child murders that if there is an ‘inkling’ of harm, a child should be removed from his/her parents. How did we get to be so risk-averse and so, frankly, panicked about even a modicum of harm coming to children that we are being told that they should be removed from parents, without investigation and due process, but on the basis of what ‘might’ be happening, so risking all the trauma and harm that an inappropriate removal from the home can bring?
Much like automatic compensation arguably provides an incentive for false accusations of rape and sexual abuse in adults, it’s also important to recognise that automatic removal of a child from the home on the smallest suspicion (an 'inkling') is ripe for misuse. Just as the called for ‘culture of non-contact’ is campaigned for by feminists in the Family Court, a culture of ‘remove the child a as first resort’ only serves to encourage maliciously false accusations directed at adults, and damage the children in the process.
In May 2023, Stella Creasy MP was subjected to a Social Services investigation on that basis, with someone maliciously and falsely reporting her as a danger to her children. Mercifully, they were not removed, but ‘safeguarding’, on the basis of ‘an inkling’ would have had a very different outcome.
What a waste of resources that would have been! Adults and children alike deserve protections from the maliciously motivated. Even so, Ms Creasy was concerned about how the force was ‘dealing with crimes against women’; when dealing with her harassment case, totally neglecting to acknowledge that men are harassed and the simple advice to ‘block your harasser’ isn’t appropriate for anyone, doing nothing to effectively deal with the harassment, which is a crime.
Told that the person reporting her ‘had every right to raise his concerns even if they are ill-founded’ does nothing to address the scourge of false/malicious/frivolous accusations that damage the lives of men, women and children alike. In fact, with no repercussions it goes a long way to encourage the malicious and unstable.
It is important to remember that the issue of child murder has not got worse because there are more reports in the press – the press is choosing to report on cases where it has not done with such frequency before. Most child killings go unreported and it is my belief that the increased reporting in 2020-2022 had more to do with the search for the damage that Covid lockdown was doing to society rather than any actual increase in murders.
In fact, according to the ONS, child murders in 2022 were below average at 54 - but such is the power of the mainstream media, many are left thinking that there was a sudden epidemic. Figures for 2020 were even lower at 45, the lowest for 4 years and the percentage of parents killing their children was consistent at 27% (or 12 children).
The vast majority of parents who kill their children are accomplished liars who fool Social Workers and often their own families into thinking that all is well until it is too late. Maria Colwell, aged 7 (1973) was probably the first child to be murdered in the modern public consciousness. It prompted a Committee of Inquiry and was all the more debated because it came so soon after Social Services Departments were set up and put them under intense scrutiny.
Victoria Climbie, aged 8 (1991) prompted another inquiry - interestingly one beset with disclosure issues - and prompted the introduction of the 2004 Children’s Act and the Every Child Matters programme. Many of the officials involved in the case were disciplined for failures in taking action to protect Victoria (some would argue scapegoated).
Heidi Koseda, aged 4 (1984), Jamine Beckford, aged 4 (1984) and Kimberley Carlile aged 4 (1986) were other notable cases which prompted change, but changes that were arguably counter-productive. These changes lurched from instructions to not intervene to intervene, from putting parents centre-stage to children centre-stage, and from a focus on child-cruelty to an almost prurient focus on child sexual abuse - which culminated in the Cleveland debacle in 1986.
In February to July of that year, 121 children were diagnosed as having been sexually abused - though in 1988 the Elizabeth Butler-Sloss Enquiry, prompted by media attention generated by some of the parents, found most of these to be incorrect, and 94 children were returned to their families.
Peter Connolly, 17 months old (2007) came only a few years after Victoria Climbie’s death, and by 2010 when another inquiry was being held, David Cameron was the new Prime Minister. Cameron was making whatever political capital he could, branding Haringey as a ‘rogue authority’ while social workers across the country became terrified of missing another similar case, overloaded with referrals as the media whipped up a storm.
The political and press pressure was intense, the upshot being that cases have become much more impersonal and bureaucratic, with no-one feeling able to trust their own judgement. Coupled with decreased budgets, heavier caseloads and ‘it’s not acceptable for any child to be harmed, ever’ mentality over the last decade, we are where we are today.
‘Safeguarding' has become a huge industry with every social worker, teacher, carer, youth worker, coach etc. etc. being expected to undertake various levels of safeguarding courses. Of course there are people who need to be trained to deliver these courses, all at a cost. Many are relatively cheap and online but of dubious quality and effectiveness – but boxes must be ticked.
The cases are many and tragic:
Daniel Pelka, 4 (2012)
Poppi Worthington, 13 months (2012)
Tommy Lee Whitworth, 27 days (2014)
Jack and Paul Throssell, 12 and 9 (2014)
Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, 6 (2020)
Star Hobson, 16 months (2020 – family tried to raise alarm)
Lola James, 2 (2020)
Finley Boden, 10 months (2020)
Logan Mwangi, 5 (2021)
Harvey Borrington, 3 (2021)
Sebastian Kalinowski , 15 (2021)
To name but a few, but all involve skilled and manipulative liars who abused their children and hid their crimes, many of them the children’s mothers.
Resources are stretched paper thin and if we insist on every single ‘inkling’ of concern becoming another case file, how will the needs of the children truly in need be met? If we remove every child from their family on the mere suggestion of abuse, where are the resources to repair that damage when we discover that no harm was being done?
If we allow the Family Courts to continue to oust a parent on the basis of unproven and uncorroborated allegations of domestic violence and abuse, how do we mitigate the damage done to children and their parents? At what point do we recognise that not every concern is genuine, not every complaint is justified?
The British paediatrician and psychologist D W Winnicott coined the phrase ‘the good enough mother’ in his landmark book first published in 1971, Playing and Reality. With that he put forth the idea that children benefit when their mothers are not perfect; that they learn resilience and life skills when their mothers fail them in a way that can be managed appropriately.
Twenty-first century Britain has come a long way since then and it can be said that mothers AND fathers cannot and should not be expected to be perfect. No human being is, and ‘perfection’ has its own downfall anyway. Children need to learn how to manage their emotions (ALL of them); how to put things right when they make a mistake (as we ALL do); and how to manage the ups and downs of human relationships (they ALL have them).
Trying to protect them from everything is unrealistic, and puts them in the path of a different danger and takes resources from the children who so desperately need them – precious resources that become ever fewer.
Am I suggesting that we write these children’s deaths off as inevitable? No.
Am I suggesting that children should be left in an abusive situation because ‘a bit of abuse is good for them? Absolutely not!
I’m suggesting that a culture of ‘safeguarding at all costs’ may cause as much damage as it prevents.
I’m suggesting that we should trust professionals rather more than we are doing at present; that bureaucracy and box-ticking is an inefficient way to deal with human beings.
I’m suggesting that there are enough false accusations destroying lives as it is and that we are opening the door to more far too often.
I’m suggesting that if social workers, the police and others weren’t run ragged having to chase up on every complaint that’s put to them without evidence or basis, they would have more time and resources to follow up on the cases that they KNOW are of concern, the children they KNOW they need to see but are kept away from, the children who ARE in real and present danger.
I’m suggesting that if they had more power to insist on having physical sight of a child and not be fobbed off with ‘not today because...,’ fewer children would slip through the net and end up in the mortuary.
Just as there are many, many false accusations levied at adults citing rape and sexual assault, there are many, many false and malicious reports made to Social Services and police regarding child neglect and danger. Encouraging more makes little sense and damages children more in the long run.
By Felicity Stryjak
Felicity is a member of FACT (Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers), Falsely Accused Letters To The Establishment (FALTTE) and is Secretary of False Allegations Forum (FAF).
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