Our shameful failure to protect vulnerable children

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The Independent Online

A certain weary inevitability surrounds the conclusions of the independent report into the death of Lauren Wright, the six-year-old who died after abuse by her father and step-mother. Yet again we find that the health authorities fell short of the standards that we should expect of them in their duty of care towards vulnerable children. Barry Capron, the former chief executive of Norfolk County Council and the chairman of the review, said that: "the health authorities did not give Lauren Wright the best service. If they had, despite all the faults identified by social services, it is most likely that she would have been protected. There was poor communication, failure to pursue diagnosis and over reliance on other professionals to act"

It is a familiar litany, repeated whenever an independent inquiry delves into a high-profile case of child abuse. Most recently we recall the case of Victoria Climbie. The details are different; the degree of culpability borne by the health authorities, social services, the police, the courts and other official bodies varies. But a common thread of lack of professionalism and poor co-ordination seems to run through these cases. Unfortunately – and perhaps for the same reasons that lead to failure in the first place – the local councils and other bodies responsible seem incapable of acting on the conclusions of these reports.

That should give central Government a clue as to what needs to be done next. When local autonomy has so often been found wanting, there is no alternative to some sort of central impetus behind reform of the system. At the very least, the Government must begin to professionalise social work and to ensure that the calibre of those attracted to social work matches the challenges they face in the field. There is also an urgent need to improve child-protection training among doctors, nurses and health visitors.

For all the publicity generated by tragic cases such as Lauren Wright and Victoria Climbie the care of children has for too long been the Cinderella of public services. And while mercifully few children lose their lives in this way, many more suffer from lesser but still agonising forms of abuse. Much of it is difficult to see. That is all the more reason to hope that the system can operate in such a way as to act promptly on even the slightest signs and always err on the side of caution. We know what must be done: but when will it happen?

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