Leading Article: From Bleak House to Cromwell Street

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Are the children of Gloucestershire cursed? There were times during the West trial when such extreme language seemed apt. The county social services department commissioned a study of the number and whereabouts of children in its care. Why? Because runaways from children's homes had provided 25 Cromwell Street with all too many of its young visitors. An early draft of the report was leaked yesterday, disclosing a dark and extraordinary well of official ignorance into which a number of children seemed to have fallen. Some children in the authority's care have just gone missing and it is unclear at this stage whether the council kept the police fully informed. Worse, portions of the authority's own care records seem to have gone AWOL.

Of course, Gloucestershire may be a freak. Errors may have crept into the assessment. It could yet be that the entire phenomenon is a product of missing information rather than missing children. As social services directors were naturally keen to point out, it is too early to try to extrapolate the Gloucestershire findings to other social services departments. It must remain speculation whether significant numbers of children are missing - all the more reason why a better national database for the missing and fuller co-operation between the social agencies and police are urgently needed.

Yet the Gloucestershire report would be so much easier to qualify or hold at a distance if we could be more confident of social services management. The Audit Commission has recently started to team up with the Department of Health's own social services inspectors; their co-operation gives some hope of better future management. Yet this latest report comes hard on the heels of the Neave case and its disclosure of how a child - a child well known to Cambridgeshire social workers and care assistants, a child logged many times by the system - could still "disappear". Before that was the Clwyd case, in which we are proud to have played some role in disclosure. There, children disappeared into an archipelago of council- run homes where abuse went unchecked. The circumstances of each of these cases were different, but they had a common thread in the failures of social services' information about vulnerable people.

We should not panic. ''Community care'' is the fashion of the day, but real communities are all too ready to slough off their share of the social burden to officialdom - to local authorities and volunteers, paying not the slightest attention to their training, pay, mission or management. Social workers are regularly vilified yet are still expected to behave with professional dedication.

These cases raise questions not about struggling professionals but about the basics of child care. Not for the first time since the Seebohm reforms of the early Seventies, it needs to be asked whether social services are working effectively when, bureaucratically speaking, children keep getting lost. We count ourselves friends of the principle of local self-government, but are counties and districts really the best machines to deliver care and protection to vulnerable children? Local government is about diversity yet each child has an equal entitlement to care and support.

But contemplating the possible fate of some of these missing Gloucestershire children, dismay grows and with it a churning resentment at some of the hypocrisies of our age. Politicians and some newspapers are mounting the beginnings of an American-style campaign against abortion and defending the rights of the unborn. At the same time, they are yelling against ''bureaucrats'', care workers and child tearaways. What of the rights of the born, of discarded children who are beaten or neglected, or indeed demonised, by those same comfortable moralisers? The unruly pupils of Manton and The Ridings are individually pilloried - no trial, no due process, no rights. Adult disapproval presses down on them. And, beyond the reach of journalism or cameras, other forgotten children merely "go missing".

Much fine rhetoric has been spent recently on defence of family values. Fine - we agree. But too often it has been a one-sided whitewash that ignores the cruelty, neglect and sheer incompetence of many parents and the resulting hell that ''family life'' then becomes. The agencies created to pick up the pieces of family dysfunction are then condemned as if they were responsible. Genuine efforts to measure and chart physical and mental abuse of children are laughed at as exaggerations. Newspaper columnists paint idyllic pictures of families, innocent of fact and figure. Too much commentary refuses to confront the daily dilemma of those we ask to provide social services - as if families operated according to some computer program which rings a bell when an error of upbringing is committed.

Social services directors have a right to demand fair criticism, untainted by passing media hysteria. But they have obligations, too - like keeping immaculate records of referrals and cases (did Gloucestershire never hear of information technology?), and like ensuring that they liaise, regularly and intimately, with police over those children who have, for one reason or another, escaped the net of care they are supposed to provide. There has been too much generalised outrage at acts of crime and too little careful thought about the cost of providing better care and closer knowledge of those lost children, pushed from homes and passed casually into the wardship of disregarded officialdom. There are parts of our country that Charles Dickens would recognise.