Leading article: The child abuse challenge: to transform the culture of care

Share
Related Topics
Sir Bill Utting's report, published yesterday, is a record of unforgiveable misery. But before tackling its recommendations, it is worth saying that the recent history of child care has been a great success. There is less of it. Fewer children are being taken into care by social services - between the early Eighties and the early Nineties the number fell by 40 per cent, and among those the numbers accommodated in children's residential homes has shrunk even more dramatically. Of children taken into care, a high proportion are found foster homes. Social work practice is, sometimes, perverted by political correctness of a kind which is blind to the best interests of an individual child. But by and large a lot of dedicated effort by professionals and foster parents provides a reasonable simulacrum of family life for many damaged children.

All that needs to be recognised and prized. Breakdowns, such as the recent case in Peterborough, for which Cambridgeshire social services were heavily criticised, punctuate that history, it's true. But victims of failed procedure or professional negligence, from Jasmine Beckford onwards, have provided lessons which have generally been learnt. Except, it seems, in that archipelago of exploitation made up by small, badly regulated local authority children's homes of which Clwyd County Council's stand as a recent proxy. Our reports about them 18 months ago were only the latest disclosures about a sector of social care which seems especially cursed.

And yet, using emotive language like that won't do. The problem of caring for the relatively small number of children who need to be accommodated by the state is a problem of organisation. And the greatest disappointment we register in Sir William Utting's study is that he - too much, perhaps, a doyen of the present system - has not thought radically enough about the management changes demanded in response to the catalogue of failure that he doggedly records.

The problem, let it be clearly recognised, is not primarily one of money. It is how the money is spent and results monitored. Utting notes that elementary record-keeping has been woefully inadequate; if not, how could so many children for whom the local authority stands in loco parentis just "go missing".

Child abuse in local authority homes is a classic instance of a service supplier (the council) failing to build reliable mechanisms to monitor its own performance. It was to prevent just such a conflict of interest that, in health and other council services, "providers" and "purchasers" were split in the Eighties: that was one of the great Tory public sector reforms. The split does not have to be mechanistic, nor does it necessarily involve privatisation or contracting out. It does involve a director of social service being able to stand figuratively outside the children's home and rap on its windows demanding to be assured that the terms of its contract are being punctiliously fulfilled.

Is local government even capable of administering a social service as difficult as child care? Sir William might have posed that question less tentatively. Child abuse scandals surely point in another direction - towards reliable, uniform standards, guarantees against abuse and perversion of the process of child care. In other words, towards some country-wide institution stronger even than Utting's proposed national council (which might consider promoting an equivalent of prison visitors, in other words some lay participation in the business of looking and listening).

Inquiring into the abuse of children is like looking in a rearview mirror in which a horror story plays out. It happened then, in the past, but now - official voices have been too swift to assure - things are different, procedures have been tightened, inspection has been regularised and the children are listened to. But Utting proves previous such assurances were false. Before he reported, the necessary scheme of reform was well enough known, from systematic inspection to registration of staff. The problems were equally apparent: to work in residential institutions with children requires from staff a certain temperament and character, possibly including qualities which potential abusers have in abundance. What is wanted now is a guarantee that reform will be implemented - a clear commitment by the Social Services Inspectorate, the Local Government Association, whoever it takes, that if abuse takes place in future (it would be utopian to rule that out) it happens in spite of the system not because of it.

Ironically, Sir William's was not the only report on children and young people published yesterday. By chance the Home Office produced a study of prisons for young offenders. It ought, at least, to remind us that the roots of delinquency and crime lie in childhood. Police and prisons come late into the game. The point in ameliorating child care is not just to eliminate abuse; it is to try to give damaged children a break. Or at least prevent further deterioration in their prospects for life.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Financial Services, SQL, Stored Procedure

£55000 - £65000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: One of the mos...

Senior UNIX Engineer (UNIX, Linux, Solaris, IBM MQ Server)

£62000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior UNIX Engineer (UNIX, Linux, Solaris...

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice