Julie Jones (pictured), director of children’s services at Westminster Council, speaks to Mike Broad about how she feels the Child B case – and her department – are being misrepresented in the press
Setting the scene:
A media storm enveloped children’s services at Westminster last week as the parents of Child B were jailed for their horrific catalogue of abuse. Kimberley Harte and Samuel Duncan each received more than 10 years in prison for torturing their four-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy. Child B was forced to eat her own faeces, had scalding water poured on her hands and was repeatedly kicked in the groin.
Commentators in the media – including Lord Laming – made parallels with the Victoria Climbié case, which he had investigated. A serious case review criticised practitioners for being too parent-focused and not seeing Child B on her own, but cleared them of poor practice. Upon sentencing, Judge Paul Worsley expressed concern that Child B, who had been taken away because of domestic violence, was returned to the family against the wishes of the foster parents.
Why was Child B returned to her real parents?
We had made efforts to have Child B and her brother adopted, but we hadn’t been able to find a family. So, when the parents had a third child, and it was being looked after well, they applied for their other children to be returned to them.
It’s a difficult balance to find when you’ve got a complex history and you need to find a permanent solution to avoid the children drifting in care, but on balance the court decided that – having taken a lot of expert evidence – the children could be returned home with a great deal of support and supervision.
Should the concerns of the foster parents have been given greater consideration?
The views of experienced foster carers are really important and do need to be put alongside the views of the other people involved in the case.
We think we did that. The foster carers were expressing concerns about the quality of parenting that would be available when the children returned home. There were other professionals who felt it was possible with good support. What nobody predicted, or raised anxieties about, was physical injury to the children.
Despite repeated visits by professionals, the abuse of Child B was discovered after the grandmother called the police. Was the system of monitoring effective enough?
The child was badly injured and nothing I can say can change that. We have known the grandmother throughout our work with this case, and we’re very grateful that she alerted the authorities.
The time we’re talking about here is a relatively short period of time – the children were at home for nine weeks.
The last time they were seen by a doctor was Wednesday 8 March 2006 and the following day was the last time a social worker saw them. The grandmother made the call the following Friday.
Two meetings were cancelled that week by the parents and we began persistent efforts to find them because they weren’t at home.
If you look back at the history of visits – more than 20 in nine weeks by a variety of wellqualified professionals – the level of monitoring shows that it was a situation of concern in the early stages of having the children placed back at home.
Would the abuse have been picked up without her intervention?
Yes. When the parents cancelled appointments in the past, we’d made very quick follow up appointments. That would have happened again this time.
Were the professionals involved too parentfocused, and should there have been more direct communication with the children, as suggested by the independent review?
We accepted that criticism from the independent report. In those early few weeks of settling the children back home we had been asked by the court to rehabilitate the family so that they could live together in the longer term.
During that time, a great deal of effort was focused on the parents’ ability to be good parents.
They consistently lied to us, but we accept the findings that we should have had more direct communication with the children. It wasn’t that we didn’t have any – it was about the balance of how much professional time goes into parents and children.
Our training now reinforces the need for direct communication with the child and we’ve done a lot of work since this case to reinforce that with our front-line workers.
Could the abuse have been foreseen?
We don’t believe so, and neither does the independent review. The concerns were focused on the parents’ ability to look after their children well enough – there had been no history at all of physical violence with any of the children.
Could this happen to any team?
Sadly, yes. We are a strong child protection service here in Westminster. We invest significant resources into it and our partners are strong too. We have a very good interagency network and yet this happened over that short period of time.
Do you think the sentences handed out to the parents are right?
Yes. It was an appalling crime and they knew what was expected of them. A great deal of support was offered to them; a great deal of professional time went into helping them and they still carried out this crime.
Have children’s services learned from the Victoria Climbié case?
This is not like the Victoria Climbié case. It’s important to remind ourselves of Lord Laming’s findings in that case.
He identified four areas to be remedied – a lack of good practice, a gross failure of the system, widespread organisational malaise and lack of clear accountability.
These factors do not feature in this case. The children and their parents were known to all the agencies and the decisions about the care of the children were made within a legal framework and agreed by the court. There was also close monitoring of their return home.
What did we learn from the Climbié case? The audit that every council had to carry out after Lord Laming’s report means that a lot of attention went into systems, procedures and practices – and there’s no doubt there have been improvements. I have huge respect for him but we don’t agree with his linking of this case to that one. I would like to talk it through with him.
How would you assess the media coverage of this case?
The media coverage has been very difficult. What’s particularly difficult for anyone close to the case is to understand how so much misinformation can run through the story. It is very upsetting for staff who have really done their best.
People have a right to know from you what there is to know, but it gets frustrating when that becomes distorted or mischief is made with it.
We have to help people understand how complicated the work is and how much good professional work goes into situations like this and try to get that better understood than it currently is.
But, you know when you are a director that you might have to be doing this one day.
I’ve certainly found over the past week that my Association of Directors of Social Services colleagues have been extraordinarily helpful. I’ve been touched by how many people have taken the time to make contact to offer advice and support.
Now that needs to be mirrored through the organisation. You need to support your staff and managers through it.
How damaging is this for child protection?
The risk is that it’s very demoralising and undermines confidence. We must mitigate that risk. In any one day, in my borough, I’ve got 400 children either in care or on the register, and about 2,000 children we’re in touch with. It’s very important we continue to offer good safe services to those children.
This case was a year ago. We heard from an independent review what we needed to do better – we accepted that advice and put it into practice. But a case like this drags you back because it is in the public arena now. It drags you back to where you were, not where you are, and it’s important to remind staff of that.
How will your children’s services team respond?
We’ve already responded to all the findings of the independent review. We’ve got an action plan – and a lot of that is focused on interagency training, making sure all our procedures and processes are properly in place and adhered to, and then audited. And we’re being very systematic about all that.
Will it hit recruitment and retention?
We have to keep on working every day to keep confidence high in the child protection system. Its very difficult work, we need good people to do it. We attract good people in Westminster and we work hard to keep them, but it is a market where turnover is too high among frontline social workers. People tell us the reason they stay is because they’re well supervised, they have manageable case loads, they’re reasonably remunerated and they know there is good training and development opportunities.
My message to staff is that all those things still apply.
● The Observer (4 February)
Britain’s child protection services will face severe criticism this week when a couple are sentenced for torturing their four-yearold daughter in a case that has alarming echoes of that of Victoria Climbié.
● The Sun (8 February)
Her appalling suffering, similar to the fate of Victoria Climbié, has led to urgent calls for a “full independent inquiry” into Westminster Council’s handling of the situation.
● The Daily Mail (8 February)
Any number of social workers and various agencies constantly monitored the couple to check their child was safe. Yet, as the tortured toddler faced weeks of systematic, sustained abuse at the hands of her parents, the “professionals” adopted what an independent child protection consultant described as a “rule of optimism”. It was a grossly misplaced optimism.