Beatrix Campbell: Now we can hope to halt the tragedies of the future

Naming Baby P’s killers helps us understand what produced them

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Should we know their identities – Tracey Connelly, Stephen Barker and Jason Owen? Yes. We need to have in our heads the terrible knowledge of who they are and what caused their sadistic treatment of baby Peter Connelly. And how else can they be required to live with what they have done?

By naming them, we have the opportunity to know their ghastly stories and, just as important, the story of how child protection systems came to be so messed up that Baby Peter's death could have been predicted. Now we can learn something about society and how to change it.

The three decades that span the lifetimes of these perpetrators is the era of the rise and fall of child protection. There has been a revolution in collective consciousness about the abuse and adversity endured by thousands of children. Many survive, sad and struggling, often nobly, to live well, to cause no harm either to themselves or anyone else.

Three decades ago, society gave itself permission to take their side, for its institutions to support them, learn from them, become their champions, honour them. But they didn't. The goodwill towards suffering children that endures residually in communities has been squandered.

Governments and services bowed to scepticism and hugely successful movements of accused adults and their advocates that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. The biographies of Baby Peter's assailants, his torturers, and their associates take us to the historic turn away from political rapport with children.

The sordid neglect in which baby Peter Connelly lived became a magnetic field for dangerous men. They were known to the statutory services. Neighbours saw them coming and going. But they were invisible.

Baby P's mother was no match for these men. Nor were the enfeebled or alienated statutory services. We might not have known about their pleasure in torture, about their favoured locales (where other children have been hurt, died and dumped) had it not been for the domestication of photo-technology.

The torturers' pleasure was enhanced by their own recordings of Baby Peter's fate. Inevitably – and mercifully – the technology disclosed what they'd been up to. But whatever was known didn't have a space in which it could have been interpreted.

Our child protection system has been cauterised by the response to the epoch of discovery. The ritual demand that professionals co-operate – made in the wake of the Cleveland child abuse controversy at the end of the 1980s – is hardly invoked because it was never really intended to. It was the first test of the new era, and whether the state would embrace abused children or accused adults. Baby Peter is the answer.

None of that happened on this government's watch; the flight from child protection has accelerated: social services are disempowered, paediatricians are frightened, the police are disengaged.

Children fall out of focus. Mothers become the focus of anxiety and anger – but in London these days it is virtually impossible to access a parents' group to wrap tough love around a troubled mother whose difficulties endanger her children.

Frightening men come and go, causing havoc below the services' radar. The services are not mandated to do what the poor child needs them to do: investigate and intervene.

Lord Laming, the god of current professional practise, has a lot to answer for. He piloted the bureaucracy and managerialism that has ousted professionalism and removed the police from jointly working to protect children. Police should only get involved if there's a crime, said Laming. But how can professionals assess the evidence if they're not looking for it? How can they intervene without an investigation?

Blame for Peter Connelly's death lies with the perpetrators. But the story of Connelly, Barker and Owen is also that of a political rout that has disabled child protection for a generation. Their lives tell us that assessment without intervention is an extravagant waste of time. Intervention without investigation, and institutional stupidity, inevitably lend succour to dangerous adults. And so children die.

Beatrix Campbell's books include 'Unofficial Secrets: the Cleveland Child Abuse Controversy' (www.beatrixcampbell.co.uk)

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