No harm in faith

Several high profile cases in recent years have revealed child protection failings in London and galvanised agencies into working more closely together. Sally Gillen finds out how this new approach is helping to spread good practice among the capital’s faith-based communities

Victoria Climbie’s death in 2000 had implications for the child protection system nationally. But in London, where she lived for the last 10 months of her life, its impact led to further changes.

The London Child Protection Committee was created to improve co-ordination between services in London boroughs because the 33 social services departments each had their own procedures.

Fallon, Paul 125x125Paul Fallon (pictured left), head of children’s services and director of social services at Barnet Council, initially feared that a London-wide protocol would take away from the local ownership that allowed agencies to tailor their procedures according to the local population. But he says his fears have proved unfounded. The LCPC’s representatives include social services, Metropolitan Police, health and the Association of London Government and its work is strategic, which means that room remains for local procedures.

Chris Bourlet is a detective superintendent with the Metropolitan Police. He says: “It can be very difficult to engage with 33 boroughs over every issue. This is where the committee fulfils a vital role for the Met. With the right representation around the table strategic issues are discussed and progressed for the benefit of all.

“The LCPC works without undermining the autonomy of local accountability or the benefits of local differences. Strategic issues can be discussed with partners enabling a better co-ordination of child protection in London,” he adds.

One issue that he points to is the sexual exploitation of children, which the LCPC has developed a protocol on. But it is on emerging issues, such as abuse within faith communities, that London is likely to need a headstart in tackling new types of child protection concerns and where a pan-London approach can be useful.

While many of England’s cities are culturally diverse, its capital is especially so. More than 130 languages are spoken in its schools and, says Bourlet, “although new communities are settling across the UK, because of the concentration of them in London, issues are often identified here first”.

Abuse within faith environments is not, of course, a new issue. In the Catholic Church child protection procedures have been in place since the establishment of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults, a unit set up in 2001 to tackle the issue, following many complaints against the church dating back more than a decade.

But a case in London that hit the headlines last summer revealed that faith-based abuse was much more complex and multi-faceted than previously thought.

Three people were jailed at the Old Bailey on child cruelty charges for torturing a 10-year-old girl they believed to be bewitched. The girl, who was brought to the UK from an Angola in 2002 by an aunt after she was orphaned, was beaten, cut and had chilli rubbed in her eyes.

Her abusers, an aunt who cannot be named, and another woman, Sita Kisanga, were jailed for 10 years for child cruelty. Kisanga’s brother Sebastian Pinto was given four years. Both had their sentences reduced on appeal in February to eight and three years respectively after London’s Criminal Appeal Court (LCPC) ruled they were “manifestly excessive”.

Police set up Operation Violet, a group dedicated to tackling abuse in faith communities, which also involved representatives from social services. Two community partnership officer posts were created to work in Newham and Hackney. Their job was to reach out to faith communities, build trust and promote the importance of safeguarding issues. In January the Met announced that the scheme would be expanded to Camden, Enfield, Haringey, Islington and Southwark.

The LCPC is now managing the community partnership work and each of the eight boroughs has a community partnership adviser. Bourlet is wary about disclosing numbers of cases, saying only that they make up a very small percentage of the between nine and 10,000 abuse allegations reported to the Met each year.

David pearsonOther groups such as charity the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), which trains about 40,000 church leaders and workers, are also working with the Met on Project Violet. Chief executive David Pearson (pictured right) says since Victoria Climbie’s death – she was taken to a church where a pastor said she was possessed by spirits – an increasing number of African churches have been sending delegates to training events.

“We have seen the same trend in relation to use of other services, for example the development of child protection policies. It’s likely we have come into contact with many hundreds of African-led churches over this time,” he says.

CCPAS has been working jointly with the Met with a number of Congolese-led churches as part of Project Violet. In February, 230 pastors from around the country attended the day’s training, which has been adapted to address issues such as exorcism and deliverance.

“One of the difficult aspects in relation to training Congolese churches is that some of the leaders have limited understanding of English and therefore everything has to be translated into French, which does slow down the pace of training,” says Pearson.

Pearson says it’s an important aim of CCPAS to “bridge the gap” between church community services and statutory child protection services and that it’s hoped that once they have been trained they will have the confidence to begin working more closely with social workers and police.

“The majority of churches take child protection seriously and have well-advanced policies, good practice and training in operation. Even so, there are many aspects of churches and faith groups that are not well understood by statutory agencies. For example, churches are open to all and will contain people who pose a risk to children, including convicted offenders.

“Many faith groups do not trust the statutory services but they will engage with CCPAS. We will seek them out. Generally speaking, social services and other agencies are not best equipped to respond at this level, though many will use our help in responding to issues of this sort,” Pearson explains.

He adds: “I also believe the statutory sector is very slow to respond to new issues. It is not a criticism. I appreciate the complexity. But a specialist agency such as CCPAS has a lot of existing relevant experience it can quickly adapt to a new situation.”

Statutory services may have taken time to address issues about child protection and there have been problems. “The issue we all struggle with is that there are often 33 ways of doing things in London. Lord Laming suggested having senior officers on local safeguarding children boards but there aren’t enough of them to go round,” says Bourlet.

Fallon is less pessimistic. He says the arrangements are going from strength to strength but warns that with the setting up of local safeguarding children boards it is important that the LCPC maintains a narrow focus on child protection.

Bourlet agrees: “There will need to be a review of the relationship between local safeguarding children boards. The LCPC is vital to co-ordination across London but we must do it in a sympathetic way to the statutory role of the new LSCBs in London.”

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