by Daniel Lombard
The tragic case of Brandon Muir has been called Scotland’s Baby P, and there are certainly similarities.
Both cases were marked by poor inter-agency working, overworked professionals missing vital signs of abuse, and mothers who were adept at hiding worrying lifestyle issues which posed a risk to their children.
But the tone of responses from the political classes and experts varied significantly between Edinburgh and Westminster.
In the wake of the Peter Connelly case last year, the children’s secretary for England, Ed Balls, made populist statements such as promising to ensure that “this never happens again”, whilst pandering to a hostile tabloid press baying for blood. Any backing he gave to the social work profession was limited to platitudes about “unsung heroes”, and made no impact whatsoever.
That was in contrast to the staunch backing of the sector from Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, who sent the message loud and clear from the dispatch box in March this year when faced with a similar outcry: “Don’t blame the social workers for Brandon’s death, blame the perpetrators”.
Those sentiments were picked up by the press and also echoed by members of the Scottish Parliament from all parties in a special debate on the profession in June.
There were also significant differences between the length and depth of professional involvement with the families, which the individual case reviews took into account.
Peter Connelly was on Haringey’s child protection register for eight months, while professionals in Dundee were involved with Brandon’s family for just three weeks after his killer, Robert Cunningham, moved into the family home.
The second serious case review into Peter’s death, as commissioned by Balls, was scathing in its analysis of the deficiencies in the professional response. It found that with the information available, Haringey child protection agencies should have saved Peter.
Yet the significant case review into Brandon’s death found it could not have been predicted.
The latter was sympathetic to the professionals concerned and praised them for their honest answers for the review. “It is clear that these are committed professional people, often working under a real sense of pressure,” said the report, which frequently combined suggestions that things could have been done differently with the caveat, “with hindsight”.
Despite the concerns that were known about the mother’s parenting at an initial meeting of professionals, the scheduling of a case conference three weeks later – by which date, Brandon had been dead for two days – was unremarkable.
Indeed, the report called this “a very prompt response to the identified concerns”.
Yet details of her lifestyle and domestic circumstances were “scant” and the extent of her parenting capabilities “unknown”. There was “no evidence “of a chaotic household”, and staff themselves said there were “there were no red lights or alarms” in relation to the case.
But was this because professionals could not have been expected to gather all the relevant information in the time available, or because their assessments and investigations were not thorough enough?
The conclusions are ambiguous.
By contrast, Lord Laming’s inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie left little room for doubt.
Take his analysis of Ealing social services’ involvement with Victoria before she was referred to Haringey Council, which lasted less than six weeks.
Laming rejected Ealing Council’s conclusion in an internal report that “staff were not aware of any indicators suggesting that Victoria was at risk of serious abuse or any indicators of serious deficits in Kouao’s parenting”.
“Ealing were not aware because they undertook no proper assessment of Victoria so that they could become aware of her needs,” he said.
Social workers will have their own views on how much they should be expected to learn about a family within a particular space of time. But even taking the differences in the cases into account, are the contrasts in tone indicative of the greater understanding of the pressures of the job, compared to the crisis in public confidence in the English sector?