We owe it to Victoria’s memory

The Victoria Climbie Inquiry was charged with investigating why an
eight-year-old girl experienced such terrible suffering and an
awful death. We also needed to make recommendations as to how the
safeguards for children could be improved so that, as far as
humanly possible, tragedies of this kind could be prevented in
future.

Of course, it is not possible to eliminate all dangers to children,
but those of us who worked on the inquiry were in no doubt that
much more could be done to reduce the maltreatment of children.

It has been most encouraging that the government has responded to
the report so positively. Comparing local services with what we
recommended has confirmed just how much needs to be done before we
can all be assured that the basics of good practice are in place in
each of the key services. The appointment of the first minister for
children and families and the transfer of some responsibilities
held elsewhere in government to her department bode well for a more
coherent approach at the centre of government.

The government’s proposals embodied in Every Child Matters
herald a fundamental change in the way we value children, respond
to their development and support their families. It holds out the
exciting prospect of a new dawn for children’s services.
Implementing it in a way that ensures the vision becomes a reality
in practice is a huge and urgent challenge to us all.

It is worth recalling why these changes are being proposed.
Victoria’s death was not just a family tragedy. It revealed a
collective administrative, managerial and professional failure by
those agencies charged to protect our most vulnerable children.
There were 12 missed opportunities by the social services, police
and the health services to save her. Too much discussion occurred
as to whether she was a “child in need” rather than a “child
protection” case. The reality was that she was a child very much in
need of help. One council’s practice guidance was 10 years out of
date. Another gave her five “unique” reference numbers. Retrieving
files was as random and unpredictable as the national lottery.

Even when Victoria was placed under police protection she was never
interviewed by a police officer. Haringey, which had responsibility
for her welfare for seven months, lost key parts of her file, and
its social worker hardly spoke to Victoria. Neither hospital to
which she was admitted assessed her needs fully because it was
suspected she was being deliberately harmed. An NSPCC centre failed
for six months to follow up a referral. In short, she was in
contact with plenty of protection services but all of them failed
her.

Between 50 and 100 children die each year from abuse or neglect.
Some have been the subject of inquiries, others not. Every child
should receive the right help as early as possible. That is not the
only way in which vulnerable children are let down by the system.
Only 8 per cent of children in care receive five good GCSEs,
compared with half the population as a whole. They are far more
likely to truant and far less likely to remain in education after
16. Such statistics explain why vulnerable children too often end
up in a cycle of poverty and crime.

Every Child Matters has two main goals: first, to protect
children; second, to ensure that every child can fulfil their
potential. But we must break free from a narrow pre-occupation with
child protection. As well as seeking to improve procedures in
children’s services, the paper seeks to develop Sure Start and
children’s centres, where parents can access child care, toy
libraries, medical support and education, all under one roof. There
is a recognition, too, that preventing young offending among
teenagers needs intervention at the earliest stage.

There are five aspects to the reform programme. The first is
prevention – tackling those aspects of a child’s upbringing that
cause later problems. The green paper reminds us that children’s
life-chances remain unequal and that there is a long way to go
before child poverty is eliminated. Tackling these inequalities
means addressing the causes of poverty. Children’s centres, where a
range of services is brought together on a single site, and the
Sure Start programme, with its 500 centres, are starting to make a
difference to the lives of families in disadvantaged circumstances.
Providing better support for parents is a crucial part of this
process.

The second goal is early intervention. We must reach children
before problems become a crisis, particularly in cases of child
abuse and neglect, which often lead to truancy and crime in later
life. Services should pool information about children. Each agency
involved with children can benefit from a common assessment
framework, where a child’s case notes follows him or her. One
person should have overall responsibility for the welfare of a
child at risk. By working in teams which bring together the range
of services, based where possible in schools or children’s centres,
there should be a more coherent and rapid response when teachers,
child care workers and others working with children express
concerns.

The third goal is to improve specialist services. It is no good
identifying children with more acute needs if we do not have the
therapeutic services or the foster carers who can give them the
help they need. There is more money being spent on children’s and
adolescent mental health services and speech and language therapy.
By next year, only in emergencies should homeless families with
children be placed in bed and breakfast accommodation, and councils
must now prioritise accommodation for those leaving care and other
vulnerable teenagers. These are welcome first steps.

In its fourth goal, Every Child Matters recognises the
need for services to work together to work effectively. My report
revealed not only a failure to act, but also a failure to pool
information, assessments and resources. I am hopeful that
children’s trusts, which integrate several different children’s
services, will become more widespread once the current pilots have
run their course. The new duty to protect children should increase
the priority with which child protection is seen by local services,
and their ability to work together will be inspected under the
leadership of education standards watchdog Ofsted.

A fifth and vital aspect of the green paper is its recognition of
the importance of having the right people to do the job. Sometimes,
people argue that what happened to Victoria amounts to a general
condemnation of those working in our public services. I disagree.
Indeed, I have contrasted the skill and dedication shown by the
hospital staff and police in trying to save Victoria’s life, and in
conducting the murder investigation, with the earlier failures to
spot what was happening. We need to invest more in recruiting and
training the best people to work with children, particularly in
social work. The green paper recognises the importance of fair pay
and better training to improve professional skills and teamworking
so that they work better together. The paper proposes a new
children’s workforce unit and a sector skills council for children
to bring together employers.

Victoria’s death could and should have been prevented. We owe it to
her memory to do everything we can to seek to ensure that any child
in need is identified early and provided with appropriate help and
support. The well-being and proper development of every child
should be our goal.

Every Child Matters sets out a new vision on the value we
place on each child and the efforts we are all willing to make to
ensure they are given every opportunity to achieve their potential
and become fulfilled and positive members of the community.
Children are citizens of society. Our task is to provide the right
kinds of support, encouragement, security and stimulation
throughout the precious years of childhood. Each of the key
services has a vitally important part to play in working in
partnership with parents. Let us hope Every Child Matters signals a
new beginning in putting children first.

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