Jeremy Laurance: What use are lessons that are never learnt?

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Another name, another dreadful death. "Baby P", formally added to the list of children the authorities proved incapable of protecting, will forever send a shudder down the spines of social workers – as did Maria Colwell, Jasmine Beckford and Victoria Climbié before him.

The shortcomings identified in yesterday's report were catastrophic for the 17-month-old child and for the careers of the staff who bore responsibility for his welfare. Baby P lost his life; they have lost their livelihoods.

The failures were shocking because they were so basic. Social workers need to learn to talk to children directly? What have they been trained to do? It beggars belief. The reaction too was disappointingly formulaic. Lessons must be learnt, good practice strengthened, staff given appropriate training, support and management, said the charity Action for Children. Setting aside whether this is not something we should expect as routine, how is it that these lessons have not been learnt from the catalogue of previous disasters?

Maria Colwell died more than 30 years ago in 1974 and the conclusions of the inquiry into her case and into the scores of subsequent ones in the decades since have a depressingly familiar ring. They emerged again yesterday, repeated like a mantra of exculpation – poor communication between professionals, insufficient supervision, agencies acting in isolation. It seems pointless to say lessons must be learnt when experience shows they never are.

One thing we now know: the case of Baby P will be with us for decades, casting its long shadow over social work and all who work with children. It was inevitable that ministers would take firm action and there was general acceptance among professionals that the failings were so serious that heads had to roll.

It would be wrong to suppose that the failings are confined to Haringey, or to social work. Events in Sheffield, where a rapist father was jailed last month for abusing his two daughters by whom he had nine children over 20 years, show that poor practice exists elsewhere, too.

Social services tend to bear the brunt of the backlash in these cases, even though other professions were equally at fault. In both the Victoria Climbié and Baby P cases in Haringey, and in the Sheffield case, there were failings by doctors that were at least as serious as those of the social workers (and doctors are paid three times as much). Justice demands blame is apportioned fairly.

The worry among those who work with children is that risk-averseness, imposed from the top, will be redoubled – to the detriment of those for whom it is supposed to benefit. We have already seen a sudden leap in the number of children being taken into care, following the Baby P case. In this fevered atmosphere, the danger is of knee-jerk reactions, at the political and professional level. Senior social workers fear that badly thought-out reforms could add to the bureaucratic burden of form-filling which already bedevils daily practice.

For individual children the critical requirement is that workers make careful decisions based on informed judgements of acceptable risk.

Taking children into care is not a panacea; it may protect them from the risk of abuse but it carries its own significant risks – of the emotional harm caused by the loss of family life. We know children in care do not fare as well, socially and educationally, as those raised in families – and the huge cost drains resources that could be spent supporting families.

Assessing risks is at the heart of the task we ask social workers to perform. But we should not forget how difficult this can be. Ed Balls yesterday expressed astonishment at the failure of the social workers looking after Baby P to handle and talk directly to the child. The need to do so has been at the core of correct social work practice for decades.

There were three men in the household and the atmosphere in which Baby P was living was chaotic and intimidating. In those circumstances it is easy for a young, poorly paid social worker to be distracted. There are no excuses but the case reminds us that careful supervision and proper support are essential.

Baby P's life was nasty, brutalised and short. If any good is to come out of his suffering, it will depend on the right judgements being made in the coming months.