Blaming strangers for a family failure

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The Independent Online
THIS has been the Year of Tortured Children - about as grim a sobriquet as I can imagine attaching to 1993. We have had the massacred innocents in Bosnia, the starving children of Africa, the drowned infants of India. Yet nothing hits home like our own, local, battered and beaten babies.

Britain is still one of the affluent Western nations. It is a secure and hopeful country to be born into; a paradise by comparison with the continents of Africa and India. Certainly there are great gulfs between the obscenely rich and the miserably poor, but even so, a child born to a family

in Liverpool or Nottinghamshire should be vastly privileged compared with one born in Namibia or Uttar Pradesh.

Nevertheless, before the haunting image of James Bulger has faded from our consciousness, it is followed by the cropped, scarred head of three-year-old Leanne White, tortured, frozen, starved and beaten to death slowly by Colin Sleat, her mother's cohabitee (I cannot use the word 'lover' of a man capable of such vicious hate). He has been jailed for 'life' (likely to mean eight years or so; 12 at most) and the child's mother awaits sentence for manslaughter.

What enrages me is the manner in which the long- drawn-out abuse of this child was monitored closely by a number of caring people. Relatives (her great-uncle and granny), neighbours, and at least five other concerned adults queued up to telephone the social services department and tell them what was going on. They then sat back and waited for someone else - someone in authority - to stop the cruelty that continued, day after day, to be meted out to a helpless three-year-old. Dozens of people must have watched Leanne change from a normal kid into a scarred, terrified, skinny little victim.

In the News at Ten report of the case last Wednesday, the child's grandmother, Mary White, blamed the social workers who never turned up in response to her telephone calls. 'I do think,' she said, full of righteous indignation, 'that if it hadn't been for the gross negligence of the social services this would never have happened.' She added, to a newspaper reporter outside the court after the verdict: 'I am going to have somebody's head on a plate, and it is going to be theirs.'

After which, having had her say and strutted her stuff, I suppose she felt better.

The little girl's great-uncle, veteran of three marriages, father of nine children, also put his oar in, railing against the negligence of social workers. Even the judge appears to think they share the blame, and has ordered that the results of an internal inquiry by Nottinghamshire Social Services should be made public.

But soft ye, a word or two before you go] Why is it the fault of social services at all? We are not talking here of an isolated young woman with no relatives to turn to, driven demented by the loneliness of life on the 13th floor of an alien tower block. For such a person and her children, the state rightly takes on the duty, through social services, of providing substitute carers, people to take responsibility in the absence of a family. Leanne White's mother, Tina, aged 22, was surrounded by relatives. Those I saw on television were strapping, forceful types. Why did none of them intervene personally?

Why didn't Granny White say to her daughter: 'Either that man goes or Leanne comes to live with me'? Why didn't big, strong, six-foot- five John Clipston, her granny's brother, who was living in the same house as Tina White and her psychopathic cohabitee, and who heard the thumping as Leanne was thrown against the wall, say to his niece: 'You get that murderous bloke out of here or my mates and I'll come and sort him out]'? (There may be a reason, as it happens. It seems he was desperate for a place to stay at the time, and thought if he made trouble, she might ask him to move out.) Perhaps some of them did try, but not hard enough. The mother was, after all, the child's lawful guardian.

These kind of people make me despair. I loathe pious talk about 'family values'. But when a family cannot rally its members and five - five - concerned neighbours to evict a 29-year-old man who, in front of their eyes, day by day, is torturing a child to death, then family, neighbours, community, conscience and all share the blame for her murder. They knew, they watched, and did nothing. Except, of course, to ring the social services.