Page last updated at 17:04 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Tricky balance for social services

By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

Baby P's bloodied clothing
The north London toddler was on a child protection register in Haringey
Two men and the mother of Baby P have been convicted of "causing or allowing" the death of the 17-month-old - although no-one has been found guilty of murder.

But no matter how he died, there is no doubt that the little boy suffered shocking abuse throughout his short life.

It raises a key question - how on earth could a tragedy on the scale of Victoria Climbie happen again?

And happen in the same London borough, Haringey, where eight-year-old Victoria's appalling murder in 2000 sparked the biggest ever shake-up in child protection?

The tragedy is already inspiring anxious debate about whether the new procedures are themselves flawed.

The Baby P court case highlighted a series of missed opportunities that could have saved his life.

The Victoria Climbie Foundation suggests that this most recent case is even worse than that involving Victoria.

Lord Laming's report in 2003, following the young girl's killing, found gross and inexcusable systems failure. What followed was a sea-change - a reformed multi-agency approach with the child's welfare firmly at the centre.

Lord Laming's recommendations led to the creation of children's trusts bringing all the agencies involved in child welfare together under a single director.

But just last month an Audit Commission report questioned their impact and effectiveness.

So have we moved on since Victoria Climbie's death?


The best interests of a child are normally served by keeping the youngster within a supported family.

Victoria Climbie
Victoria Climbie was killed by her great aunt and great aunt's lover in 2000

But sometimes it is the family that represents the danger and once that has been recognised, agencies must move from being the "helpful friend" to the "hostile intruder".

This is a very tricky transition. Official guidance warns: "Professionals can find it difficult to move from a family support model of intervention to a child protection model."

One of the key questions for the review into the Baby P case, and for the future of child protection, is whether services are still over-optimistic in believing a family can be trusted.

It is a hard balance to achieve, because taking a child into care has serious negative consequences and children's services will often work to keep a youngster at home even if they know there is a degree of risk.

Baby P, unlike Victoria Climbie, had been identified as at significant risk and was on the child protection register.

But the mother appeared co-operative and persuasive - sometimes volunteering information and seeking advice and help.

Police had not found enough evidence to pursue any criminal proceedings. And the decision was made to leave the little boy in the family home.

Critical role

Some experts suggest the Laming reforms themselves have contributed to the problem: the complex systems and protocols, it is argued, may distract authorities from the urgent human needs of a child.

Another question likely to emerge from the case review concerns the relationship between children's services and the NHS, following the failure of a clinician to spot that Baby P had an alleged broken back.

As the government prepares to launch a child health strategy for England, some wonder whether the health service is too focused on the needs of acute and adult patients to properly pursue its critical role in the protection of children.

It is a profoundly troubling story of abuse and suffering, but thankfully it is a rare one.

In fact, Britain has one of the lowest levels of violent child deaths in the world.

Nevertheless, the tragedy of little Baby P's short life will still inspire profound soul searching.

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