Charity calls for volunteers to monitor children at risk

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Members of the public will be recruited to make daily visits to children on the "at risk" register in an attempt to prevent child abuse deaths. The innovative new scheme is designed to encourage local people to take more interest in their community in the wake of the Victoria Climbie scandal.

Local volunteers will be trained to spot signs of abuse and report concerns to social workers.

The Volunteers in Child Protection project is being set up by the charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV) and will start in two pilot areas, Bromley and Sunderland, early next year. Social services in the two towns are supporting the idea, which could be rolled out across the country if it proves successful.

A similar project in California led to a 24 per cent reduction in reported child abuse among the families involved.

The scheme has been backed by the parents of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie, who died in February 2000 after months of abuse at the hands of her great-aunt, Marie-Therese Kouao.

Severe shortages of social workers meant that despite being on the at-risk register and repeatedly taken to hospital with injuries from the abuse, Victoria was not visited in the months before her death.

Mr and Mrs Climbie had sent their daughter from their Ivory Coast home to live with Kouao in London in the belief she would have a better life. Instead, she was beaten, whipped with chains and burned with cigarettes before dying of hypothermia, wrapped in bin liners in the unheated bathroom of Kouao's north London flat.

Victoria's mother, Berthe Climbie, said: "Schemes such as this mean Victoria didn't die in vain."

Kouao and her boyfriend, Carl Manning, are serving life sentences after being found guilty of Victoria's murder. The case led to the damning findings of the Laming inquiry into child protection.

CSV will start recruiting and training people for the scheme in the new year. Volunteers will be given six days' training before being assigned families to visit every day. Campaigners hope the scheme will encourage local people to become more involved in their community, and give social workers more information about children on the "at risk" register.

Elizabeth Hoodless, executive director of CSV, said: "Inquiry after inquiry has shown that current measures to protect children are not enough - there are children we know about who are on child protection registers, and still they are dying." Just months after the Victoria Climbie case, the death of six-year-old Lauren Wright again highlighted the lack of community involvement in child welfare cases. Lauren's father and stepmother were found guilty of her manslaughter in 2001 after a court heard that people had seen her being hit by her parents, or suspected she was being abused, but none had reported their concerns.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said the scheme needed to be properly evaluated but could help prevent abuse of children. A spokesman said: "Any scheme that protects children must be welcomed, and the community must remember that child protection is everyone's responsibility."

Social workers have given the scheme cautious backing, although they are concerned that local authorities could use the volunteers as a cheap substitute for trained professionals.

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