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Hit squads to tackle child abuse

Government sets up task forces after '20 years of failure' by council social service departments
The government is ready to take new powers to send "hit squads" into under-performing council social services departments, following a series of high-profile child-abuse cases.

The move follows concerns over the lack of action in Cambridgeshire, two years after the death of Rikki Neave, and well-publicised failings in Sefton social services.

The Government already has the power to issue directions to social services departments, but ministers are considering asking Parliament for wider powers.

These would include sending social care task forces into departments deemed to be failing. Ministers already have powers to send teams into failing local education authorities and the new social services powers - which would require legislation - would be modelled on this.

Evidence has emerged of a crisis in child care. Allegations of child abuse in residential care homes, heard at the North Wales tribunal, and a series of high-profile inquiries into the deaths of abused children have undermined public confidence in the care system.

More than 60 investigations have been held over the past year into the deaths or serious injury of children who had been suspected of being abused. The Department of Health said yesterday it had been notified of 85 deaths and serious injuries during the 12 months ending in March where concern about abuse was either "suggested or suspected". Under government guidelines, the most serious cases - of death or life threatening injuries - have to be investigated.

But there is concern that the lessons of major inquires into abuse are still not being learnt.

There have now been more than 30 large inquiries, among them the investigation into the death in 1974 of Maria Colwell, the Frank Beck inquiry in Leicestershire, Staffordshire Pindown, Cleveland, and the Clyde report on Orkney. With more than a dozen police forces investigating abuse, further inquiries are likely.

In many cases the recommendations of published reports have a familiar ring, but have not always been universally adopted. The leading child- care lawyer Allan Levy QC, who chaired the Pindown Inquiry in Staffordshire, said yesterday, "There have been at least 30 significant inquiries in the last 20 years or so if not more.

"It is the same scenario over and over again and it has been going on for years. We are just not following up on these recommendations. When you look through the various reports you are reading the same material, the same recommendations, the same failings, and I find it very very disturbing.

Paul Boateng, the junior health minister who will visit Sefton, Merseyside, where the Social Services Inspectorate reported that almost 200 children needing help or protection had not been allocated a social worker, warned the Government would clamp down sharply on poor services.

"There will be zero tolerance of councils who fail to protect vulnerable people in their care," he said. "The Government will, if necessary, use its power to intervene. I will not hesistate to seek new powers from Parliament if they are needed."

Peter Bibby, former deputy director of child care for Barnardo's in London and author of Organised Abuse, says one problem is action is crisis-led and sometimes sidetracked, as in the hunt for evidence of "satanic" abuse.

"Many developments in social policy are a response to the latest crisis. Maria Colwell fulfilled this trigger function in 1974 as did the incidence of allegations in Cleveland," he said.

"The issues were not properly recognised. Great public pressure was generated because people wanted to say that satanic abuse was not taking place. This diverted attention from the questions of whether any abuse had taken place."

Children still at risk, page 5