Saturday 24 May 2008
Deborah Orr: What went wrong with this family?
A full inquiry is being called for. But blame aplenty is being apportioned already. No one knows exactly what ghastly events led to poor seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq's death from malnutrition, as her five siblings grew weaker alongside her. But it is self-evident that she was let down by every single adult who might have been able to make a positive intervention in her short life.
It is a mystery that the school that she and her siblings attended was so incurious about the removal of all the children, especially as there are allegations that the trouble began over bullying at the institution.
It is baffling that an educational social worker made only one visit to the home of the children, before letting what should have been an extremely worrying situation drift. Reports suggest that the social worker could not gain access to the house. This is the very opposite of a satisfactory explanation as to why no further action was taken.
It is sad, but very far from untypical, that the community living around the family was detached enough from the household for alarm to have stirred in nobody until it was too late for Khyra.
And it is perfectly logical that the two arrests that have so far been made were of Khyra's mother, Angela Gordon, and the man who lived with her, Junaid Abuhamza. The two have been charged with neglect and have been remanded in custody until next Wednesday.
What is not logical, and what occurs routinely when "complicated" families are reported in the news, is that Mr Abuhamza is being described as the children's "stepfather". How readily we accept the idea that any man who has a live-in relationship with a mother also takes on a formal parental role.
Fathers' rights groups were quick to suggest that fatherhood was being undermined by the dropping of the need of IVF clinics to "consider a child's need for a father". Yet the unchallenged acceptance that any old boyfriend can move in with some children and earn the title "stepfather" seems an incredibly lazy dismissal of the gravity of a guardian's responsibilities, and one that should be scrutinised with care.
This is not just a question of semantics. The decision to move in with another person's children should be seen as an extremely important and sensitive one. Becoming a "stepfather" should not be a commitment that is taken on lightly. Yet the fact that "step-parent" is a term conferred so casually contradicts all wise counsel that suggests caution and restraint.
Then there is the continuing mystery of the whereabouts of Abu Zair Ishaq (formerly Delroy Frances), the actual father of these six children. Only his sister, Valerie Frances, has discussed his role in this terrible story, as yet. Ms Frances had not seen her nephews and nieces for six months, but had been troubled enough about their welfare to turn up by coincidence as the tragedy was unfolding.
No doubt the woman was in shock, but nevertheless her complaint that she had not been informed officially about what was happening still seemed churlish under the circumstances. Ms Frances also expressed unhappiness that no attempt that she knew of had been made to inform Mr Ishaq of the condition of his children. It would seem that the welfare of his sons and daughters is accepted as being the responsibility of everybody except Mr Ishaq.
Whenever one suggests in the press that parental abandonment of children is, in itself, neglect, a deluge of angry missives from estranged fathers arrives, explaining that it is vindictive mothers who are generally to blame when an absent father cannot gain access to his children. When and if Mr Ishaq turns up, it will certainly be illuminating to hear his side of this story.
In the meantime, angry as we all may feel that the state has let down these children, the two people who by definition were most derelict in their duty were the two who brought them into the world.
It is possible that there are plausible explanations for the breakdown in their parenting. But the lessons that can be learned about what went wrong inside this family are every bit as important as the lessons that can be learned from the failures of the child welfare services of Birmingham.
New rules on who's fair game
It is not a great week to defend the young royals. One of the males from The Ones Who Do It Properly branch of the family has just been exposed as the chap who actually did sell his own granny, or snaps of her at his wedding. Nevertheless, I do feel that the Daily Mail was out of order when it printed a picture of 19-year-old Beatrice Mountbatten-Windsor, pictured above, in a bikini, and described her as "Miss Piggy". The princess's mother, Sarah Ferguson, thought so too, and said so, by happy chance, just as was she launching a television show. This, in turn, prompted the journalist responsible for the initial attack, Allison Pearson, to explain why she had no regrets.
Now, I think the world would be a better place, generally, if we all refrained as much as we could from making pointless attacks on people's physical appearances in the name of entertainment. But the Daily Mail does not agree, and gives much editorial space to discussions of whether women are too fat, or to thin, too tarty or too frumpy, too "worked on" or not made up enough, and so on. The Mail is the closest thing the women of Britain have to the Taliban, so dedicated is it to sternly judging every risible female choice it can publish a nice big photograph of.
Therefore, it would have been fair enough if Ms Pearson had pointed out that making ad hominem attacks on women was part of the highly successful editorial policy of her newspaper, therefore part of her own job, and left it there. But it's Pearson's defence of her comments that is so strange. Pearson says that she has a right to slag off Beatrice's body, first, because her mum is awful; second, because Beatrice has to have security around her everywhere she goes; and, third, because Beatrice herself admitted that she hadn't looked very good in the swimsuit.
So, if you're insecure and suggestible, have a weird life and an unfortunate mother, then you are fair game. Oddly, I'd have said these were all good reasons why it might be incumbent upon the well-adjusted grown-ups to lay off the playground taunts. Maybe I'm just too fat to understand such things myself. Or too thin. Or too po-faced. Or not po-faced enough. Or too drunk. Or too sober. Oh, if only everyone could be just perfect ...
Don't let's distort the abortion debate
There is something very creepy about the way pro-life campaigners have fixated on trying to reduce the time limit on abortion. Mainly the creepiness comes in because they claim to act out of moral conviction, but are happy just to play a numbers game instead.
This policy is, they explain, a sensible tactic that is designed to save any lives it is possible to save. But if they behaved according to their beliefs, pro-lifers would just butt out, and accept that a person who does not believe in abortion is unqualified to play a part in scientific or legal regulation of a procedure they reject. The thing that troubles me most about this stance is that it distorts what should be an important and ongoing debate.
It was the right thing to gather evidence from the medical profession and bring a new vote in Parliament on the abortion time limit. It was the right thing, in the face of scientific evidence confirming that there had been no change, since the last vote, in the viability of foetuses aged 20-24 weeks, for the limit to remain. But it would also be wrong for pro-choice adherents to lose sight of abortion's link with medical science, and become just as dogmatic in our defence of the laws around abortion as pro-lifers are in their emotive attacks.
When and if the scientific community reaches agreement that medical advances may have prompted a fresh re-evaluation of what is being asked of those who perform terminations, then those voices should be listened to.
Those concerns should not be hi-jacked in order to serve a quite different agenda. Yet pro-choicers, too, must not fall into the trap of believing that careful monitoring of the abortion time limit is a concession to pro-lifers, just because the latter erroneously claim that it is.
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