Don’t leave race on the side

The government’s green paper on the future of children’s
services, due for release in September, has been drafted primarily
in response to Lord Laming’s report into the death of Victoria
Climbie. It is, as yet, unclear how Laming’s report will be
interpreted. But if the green paper follows its lead and sidesteps
issues of race and culture it will represent a significant missed
opportunity for child protection.

There is evidence to suggest that child death inquiries are
consistently failing to address issues of race and culture. A
recent Department of Health study, Learning from Past Experience,
found that of the 40 cases reviewed, 32 made no reference to race
and culture. Likewise, there are few statistics that can tell us
how many children who die from abuse are from ethnic

Even in the more recent child death reports, exploration of issues
of race and culture have been limited, particularly in terms of
providing a context and an understanding for the child’s family
norms, experiences and networks. Reading Newham area child
protection committee’s part 8 review into the death of Ainlee
Labont’ you would not know that the mother or father was black, nor
the racial identity of the first son. Ainlee died, aged two, in
January last year covered in cigarette burns and weighing just
21lb. Agencies had withdrawn from the family.

The Laming inquiry does clearly identify the race and culture of
Victoria Climbie and her carers, but does not explore how cultural
and religious beliefs may have influenced the abuse that was
inflicted on the girl. Victoria’s great aunt, Marie-Therese Kouao,
and partner, Carl Manning, are serving life for her murder.

This needs to be addressed. The impact of race, culture and
religion in child protection is hard to overestimate. And the
absence of good, statistical evidence denies us the opportunity to
identify gaps in services for black children and their families. It
also prevents us improving professional practice in relation to
these families.

To give one particularly pertinent example: in chapter three of the
Victoria Climbie Report, Victoria’s Story, there is a
section about the eight year old and the church. These paragraphs
outline how Kouao used church members for support and advice over
her concerns about Victoria.

Victoria had become incontinent. When Kouao asked for advice on
this, according to the inquiry report, she was told by at least two
pastors at the church that it was their opinion that the girl had
been possessed by an evil spirit. It is clear from the evidence
given to the inquiry that both Kouao and Manning took on this
belief about Victoria, and she is referred to as “Satan” in an
entry in Manning’s diary.

What the inquiry failed to explore was what this belief system
meant in terms of how Kouao and Manning treated Victoria. For the
couple to have this belief gave them an explanation for Victoria’s
wetting and soiling which removed the responsibility from them. In
their minds it may have justified and legitimised the torture they
were inflicting on Victoria, and possibly even intensified

By failing to address this issue in the depth it deserves, the
Laming report missed an important opportunity to explore cultural
and religious beliefs and how the concept of child abuse is
understood in minority communities

The green paper should now set out the need to create a dialogue
with community and religious groups to raise awareness about child
abuse and its symptoms, to enable communities to develop an
understanding of these issues and why children need protecting. Not
to suggest that all of a community’s practices and belief systems
are abusive to children but to explore where certain beliefs have
come from and what the implications of such beliefs could be.

Child protection agencies have a responsibility to offer
alternative explanations for behaviours which are being credited to
beliefs such as evil spirits – in Victoria’s case, the alternative
explanation was that her incontinence was a symptom of the abuse
and emotional upheaval she had experienced.

Further, given that this belief system around evil spirits is
common in many cultures, Lord Laming and the inquiry team should
also have considered what the wider implications might be. For
instance, what impact would it have on any child to be told that
they are possessed by an evil spirit? How would this “knowledge”
affect that child’s emotional, social and psychological

The role of the black community in the protection of black children
should not be underestimated. In Victoria’s situation it is
important to remember that when Kouao and Manning wanted help with
Victoria they went to their church and asked advice from people
there – not from social services, the GP or the hospital.

The reasons for this have to be seen in the context of the
experience of black people living in a racist society, which can
deter them from approaching the statutory agencies for support, as
can questions around immigration status.

It is difficult to know whether Victoria could have been saved. But
it is clear that culturally sensitive workers who knew how to
assess child protection concerns in families from different
cultures may have been more able to see the warning signs.
Likewise, if there had been more awareness around issues of child
abuse among the black community that Kouao and Manning became a
part of, there would have been many more people with more
opportunities to notice that something was amiss and raise their

What is needed is a checklist which could be used as a guide for
individuals and teams undertaking serious case reviews to ensure
that issues of race and culture are fully explored. I would suggest
one along the lines of that described in the panel (below).

The movement of vulnerable adults and children will increase and
will continue to challenge care services. The result is that we
must identify more proactive responses to populations who are
vulnerable. Clearly missing from the Laming report is a
recommendation that child protection agencies should be working
proactively with community and religious organisations to promote
awareness about child abuse. This could be done at a local level
with area child protection committees – or their statutory
successors – making links with community groups in their

It is to be hoped that the green paper addresses some of the Laming
report’s inadequacies in this area.

Daksha Mistry is training director and Saira Chauhan
trainer and consultant at Reconstruct, an independent training and
consultancy company. They will be facilitating workshops at the
forthcoming conference Fit for Practice in Child Protection? in
London on 18 September. They can be contacted at

Part 8 checklist

A checklist for part 8 inquiry teams could help to address
issues of race and culture in abuse cases. 

  • Does the case file contain accurate information of the race,
    culture or heritage of this family? 
  • Was consideration given to any needs that arise in relation to
    the ethnicity of the child or family, such as: the ability to speak
    and understand English; their familiarity with services; the impact
    of racism or uprooting from their country of origin; the
    significance of cultural and religious practices and beliefs? 
  • Was culture being used as an excuse for child abuse? Were the
    baseline standards for good enough parenting and significant harm
    different from those for a white family? 
  • Did the assessment include an exploration of how the family’s
    culture may affect parenting? 
  • Was this child and family isolated from members of their
    extended family or cultural group?  
  • Was there an exploration of their support systems and
  • Was the worker challenged in supervision about their
    attitudes,  assumptions and stereotypes about this family?

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