For Melissa Benn responsibility for the death
of children who have suffered abuse should be shared more widely as
we cannot expect professionals in social or health services to be
Victoria Climbie died aged eight years old
with 128 marks of violence on her tiny, malnourished frame. In the
heart of a capital city in one of the most apparently civilised
countries in the world, no one stopped two adults from brutally
neglecting and torturing her. She was not the first child to die
like this and I doubt that she will be the last.
Victoria’s short life and violent death raises
only questions and more questions, moral, political and
philosophical. The first is the starkest: how could two grown human
beings inflict such pain and misery on a child? Oddly, it seems the
question that is least asked in this case. Instead, thousands of
column inches are devoted to the failings of social workers,
doctors, police officers and priests. So do we simply accept the
fact of murderous adult sadism or can we not face it?
The next question is the one we are all
compulsively asking. How can a sophisticated system designed to
protect children fail to have saved this little girl’s life?
Evidence at the Climbie inquiry has unravelled much of this sad
story. A social worker thought that Victoria’s studied formality in
the presence of her great aunt was something to do with the strict
respect in which adult family members are held in African-Caribbean
culture. A pastor thought that he was being charged with exorcising
the “evil” within this scared little girl.
Is it such a surprise that people whose job it
is to watch out for others can fail? Obviously, some caring
professionals lack some basic human skills, such as the ability to
see through surface adult charm. Many of those involved in
Victoria’s case thought that someone else was ultimately
responsible. The doctor who treated her at the Central Middlesex
Hospital discharged her in the mistaken belief that a social worker
would follow up concerns about Victoria’s social circumstances. A
relative of Victoria’s great aunt twice rang an emergency line. She
believed what she was told: that official agencies would pick up on
her cry for help.
Don’t ask me why, but at this point the story
of Harry Potter keeps intruding on my mind. The book begins with a
newborn baby deposited on a doorstep by well-wishers following the
death of his parents. He is then brought up by his uncle and aunt
in conditions of extreme cruelty, treated with contempt at every
turn and kept in a cupboard under the stairs. On his 11th birthday,
Harry is rescued by the giant Hagrid, who plucks him, quite
literally, from the family home and takes him to a sort of public
school for wizards. So the magic begins.
When I first read this story I was immediately
struck by how much it was about child cruelty and, more
importantly, the ways that children can escape cruelty. I thought
the same when I recently watched the film of Roald Dahl’s Matilda,
another tale of child neglect and emotional violence. Here, Matilda
saves herself through a combination of literacy, extraordinary self
will, magic and the intervention of a benign adult who has herself
suffered as a child.
Tragically, there was no magic in Victoria
Climbie’s case, but her life could have been saved by the actions
of a brave, benign adult. That adult could, conceivably, have been
any one of us.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has written
of our unending responsibility to others, the ethical imperative
that we keep our faces turned, metaphorically speaking, to the
faces not just of friends and family but of strangers too. To put
it in more concrete terms, we all have a responsibility for the
child or adult suffering in our midst. It can’t just be the
professional who is considered to have failed when a child dies at
the hands of its parents.
But how many of us would take firm action if
we suspected that a child was being neglected or abused? How many
of us would simply presume that someone else somewhere else – a
teacher, a doctor, a social worker – was responsible for that
There remains something of a lace curtain
mentality in this hyper-communicative text-messaging world. We
fear, as always, making a fool of ourselves. Anyone who has ever
tried to intervene between a parent and a child in a public place
will know the venom that can be unleashed at the apparently
But a lack of stranger care has reverberations
for us all. Friends and neighbours may be in dire need and we in
their supposed community can not only fail to notice but, upon
noticing, choose to do nothing. If care in the community is the
stuff of nostalgia and imagined utopias, then its absence is the
stuff of best-selling novels and our worst nightmares.
Melissa Benn is a journalist and