The subtle lessons of a tragic case

The Victoria Climbie inquiry should beware the
dangers of knee-jerk recommendations, says Elizabeth McAteer

Most practitioners in the field of child care
social work will be committed to learning from the outcome of the
Victoria Climbie Inquiry. However, the portrayal of social workers
as barely literate incompetents who failed to observe what was
under their noses is hardly the way to maintain existing staff
morale or encourage recruits.

lack of public understanding about social workers’ child care role
almost certainly comes from the fact that social work has never
evolved into a universally accessed service. More than 80 per cent
of its users live on or below minimum state benefit levels. The
assumption from this is that child abuse only occurs among the
poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. This is
dangerous and untrue.

accurately, it is those with the least resources who do not always
have the networks to manage difficult and stressful situations.
They then tend to come to the attention of the authorities. When
this happens and a child is clearly at risk of significant harm, it
is essential that all agencies offer the required

effective assessment of children must ensure that they are listened
to and understood. This is stressed in the Children Act 1989, as is
the point that those who do not speak English should have access to
translation services. The assumptions that may be made by listening
to an adult’s interpretation of a child’s distress has proved
fatal, as have the unquestioning or misinformed positions of
over-positive racial stereotyping. It appears that Victoria’s
fearful and obedient response to her aunt was interpreted as a
normal reaction within her culture.

than repeat previous inquiry findings, perhaps Lord Laming will
consider in a wider context why it is that some children are failed
by what is acknowledged still to be a reasonably effective child
protection system. If government wants to deliver a first-class
service to those most in need of protection, it will have to invest
in an adequately trained and financially rewarded

raft of initiatives flowing from the modernising social services
agenda, and other social policies such as Sure Start and the
children’s fund, indicate that social work is part of an
overarching government strategy to deal with the causes of stress
that lead to family breakdown, which can then generate child
protection concerns. These initiatives need time to bed in. Any
knee-jerk reaction to Victoria’s death has the potential to cause
more harm than good.

Elizabeth McAteer is a social
worker, child protection and family support, for Liverpool social
services department.

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