Social workers felt ‘helpless’ in radicalisation case, finds review

Brighton brothers' case raises questions about parameters of child protection system and professionals' awareness of radicalisation

Brighton town hall, picture: RexFeatures

The case of five siblings living in Brighton, two of whom were killed in Syria after becoming radicalised, left social workers feeling they had “no tools in the toolbox” to intervene, a serious case review has found.

Abdullah and Jaffar Deghayes, referred to as siblings W and X in the review for Brighton and Hove Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB), died in 2014 after travelling to Syria to fight with the Al-Nusra Front, which had pledged allegiance to al-Quaeda the year before.

Along with their siblings, they had experienced sustained racism and religiously motivated abuse in their local community, where they grew up after their family left the Middle East in the late 1980s / early 90s.

All five siblings had been placed into child protection proceedings in 2010 after physical abuse from their father. The four youngest continued to be involved with a range of statutory services, none of whom were able to stop their behaviour, around school attendance and criminality, deteriorating.

But there was “no recognition any of the siblings were vulnerable to being exploited into radicalisation; nor was there much understanding of the part religion played in their lives and if there were changes in this over time”, the case review said.

The investigation noted, among 13 main findings, that the siblings’ case raised questions over the ability of child protection procedures to cover risky behaviour by adolescents, as well as over professionals’ understanding of responsibilities linked to the government’s Prevent agenda.

It also highlighted, the report said, practitioners’ lack of effective interventions when dealing with families who had suffered longstanding trauma, which increased the risks of young people being vulnerable to exploitation.

‘Deteriorating circumstances’

The siblings’ original child protection plan followed allegations that their father made them get up at 4.30am to study the Koran and punished them if he felt they were not studying properly. “This could include making them stand against a wall for up to seven hours while he sporadically whipped them with electrical wire,” the review said.

Even after the siblings and their mother moved, police had no power to stop the father visiting, because of the limitations of his bail conditions. The child protection plan was eventually discontinued early in 2012 after the father left the UK and was reported to have stopped visiting the family when in the country.

Nonetheless, the report noted, “conference minutes make it clear that professionals understood circumstances had deteriorated: the mother was considered to be trying her best to set boundaries, but her four youngest boys were effectively beyond her control”. The siblings, the case review found, were suffering significant harm as a result of neglect.

It added that the boys “expressed frustration” to professionals as to how their experiences of racism – including, they felt, from police – had been dealt with. This perception that statutory services had previously let the family down, the report said, left other practitioners with “no mechanism to work with the past trauma and be able to move forward effectively”.

‘Systemic issues’

The decision to step down to a child in need plan, the investigation found, was consistent with a “systemic issue around the lack of use of the child protection system [at that time] for adolescent neglect”. It was also felt the “less authoritarian” child in need procedures, which left a Family Intervention Project (FIP) officer to work intensively with the family (rather than the “too many” professionals previously involved), might prove more effective – though these hopes proved unfounded.

Seven months later, in August 2012, the siblings’ case was closed by children’s services. A child protection conference was next held in the spring of 2014, after concerns were raised  that Abdullah and Jaffar may have gone to Libya or Syria to fight.

The serious case review noted: “The appropriate professional response to adolescents beyond the care and control of their parents has always been problematic within a child protection system largely focused on children perceived to be more vulnerable.” The boys’ case, it said, highlighted “blind spots” in terms of how adolescents’ behaviours were viewed and responded to.

‘Total surprise and shock’

The report also noted a lack of awareness around the risks of radicalisation and of responsibilities under government counter-terrorism strategies. “The news that siblings W and X had gone to Syria, with two young people from Brighton, was a total surprise and shock to professionals who knew the boys,” it said.

A school had raised concerns over a local gym at which “some young people were converting to Islam”, but no further action was taken by the local police community safety team. One of the boys was referred the same year to the Prevent system’s ‘Channel panel’ by a Youth Offending Services worker after making a “heated remark” about Americans. But, the review said, “the risk of travel was not on the agenda at that time”.

The investigation found their had been “considerable learning” in Brighton and Hove since the case. It praised the authority’s “timely and constructive” development of a strategy to link child protection and Prevent processes. It noted an ongoing national debate within children’s social work over “how best to manage this [new] responsibility and equip staff and managers to identify risks, to undertake holistic assessments and ensure that the process and the outcomes address child safeguarding issues including the risk of radicalisation”.

Graham Bartlett, the independent chair of Brighton and Hove LSCB, said the organisation fully accepted the case review’s findings.

“As the report states, the dilemma around how to respond to the need to safeguard young people involved in risky behaviour is not restricted to Brighton and Hove, but is common in most areas of the UK,” he said. “The board has looked at whether current strategies for working with young people go far enough in safeguarding those who maybe particularly vulnerable and to prevent them being exploited.”

Bartlett added that Brighton and Hove children’s services had “changed their practices with the aim of improving the continuity and consistency of relationships between social workers and families”.

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