Off duty when Stacey needed them most?

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The Independent Online
Stacey Phelan was battered to death in Nottinghamshire a month before her second birthday. Her death at the end of last month is another tragedy to add to the list of child murders in Nottinghamshire, which has soared from one or two a year in the Eighties to a current average of one a month. Had these children been killed in a minibus or an air crash, rather than at the hands of their parents, the situation would be regarded as a disaster.

Until now social services and, latterly, the health service have been held responsible in controversies about child killings. The police have generally escaped stringent scrutiny.

But the police service figures prominently in reports of what has gone wrong with child protection in this county. Two documents in particular question the immunity of the police from scrutiny and blame. They reveal that the police have gone Awol from the protection of children. Neither citizens nor professionals seem to feel that the police are the people to turn to when a child is being battered.

Last autumn all the statutory agencies with a duty to protect children were called to an unprecedented review by the Area Child Protection Committee, which co-ordinates policy. On 12 October last year all the agencies turned up. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service were not present. The record of this meeting reveals the way in which the police service dominates the child protection processes, a dominance matched only by its seeming indifference.

At this meeting, social services staff complained that when people referred cases of suspected sexual abuse or physical harm to the police they were passed back to social workers. 'The vast majority of the investigative work in the cases is done by the social workers,' the report says. This is contrary to guidelines laid down by the Home Office in Circular 52/86, which requires the police to actively seek and preserve evidence in child-abuse cases. It describes a duty to share information, plan joint investigations and even - something no police force finds comfortable - a duty to subordinate prosecution to protection if necessary.

The record of police response to the investigations reveals another major source of complaint - that the police do not co-operate with their colleagues. The Home Office prescribes a clear course of action. But the Nottinghamshire report of last year is unequivocal: 'Social services staff were clear that this was not the process which is being followed.' The common experience of all the professional agencies suggests that police investigators, primarily the CID, commonly viewed their child-protection colleagues inside and outside the force with contempt. When cases were referred to the police they were often assigned to officers 'with no experience or training and with even less inclination to operate on a joint basis'. Investigators 'showed a lack of understanding and a dismissive attitude' to colleagues.

The report reveals that the Home Office advice was ignored. In an alarming comment on the 'culture and climate' of police investigations into cruelty and abuse, the report said: 'No one present would admit that they would allow a child of their own to be exposed to these processes.'

A common complaint in 1993 was that police officers failed to comply with the Home Office instruction to share information and often seemed to be intimidated by their own senior officers. When they did share information they seemed 'clearly nervous of the reaction of their senior officers if this was known'.

The result was an atmosphere that bore some similarity to the situation in Nottinghamshire six years ago when a report produced for a meeting with senior police officers by the then child-protection specialists in social services raised concerns about commitment to joint work, attitudes towards child victims, the low priority given to child abuse work and the resulting difficulty in 'getting the police to investigate'. Some of those present at both meetings might have wondered why so little had changed.

An equally forthright critique of the Crown Prosecution Service in Nottingham emerges from the report, which complains that children may wait more than a year for their cases to come to trial. The CPS has banned therapeutic support for children who are needed as witnesses. Those children are thus stranded, often in great confusion and pain, waiting for the criminal justice system to bring a prosecution, yet denied the counselling that could help them make sense of their experience.

The Area Child Protection Committee concludes that all this paints 'a depressing picture of the quality of liaison and joint working' at a time when the Government's expectations of collaboration have increased - so depressing that it asked for a clear statement from the police of their commitment to the duties described by the Government. Until last week there had been no response. But the head of CID, Detective Chief Superintendent Phillip Davies, told the Independent that no concerns arising from the 12 October meeting had been passed on to them. However, the record of that meeting was passed on. Wasn't that enough?

Despite the public silence, the report is believed to have caused private consternation within the constabulary - though that is not to say that it learnt from the critique, or ordered a review of its failures.

This impregnable disposition is echoed in the conclusions of the inquiry into the death of Leanne White commissioned by the ACPC. Social workers and health practitioners are damned for not taking seriously the alarm calls made by her neighbours and relatives. Nottingham's child death figures were always higher than the national average. In the Eighties, when the NSPCC was custodian of the county's 'At Risk Register', this was believed to reflect the county's vigilance rather than its dangerous parents. In England the average number of children under one year old on registers was 5.2 per 1,000. In Nottingham in 1991 it was 8 per 1,000. By 1992 this fell by more than half to 3.3 per 1,000.

If the high figures reflected vigilance, then presumably the low figure reflected a loss of vigilance. This is the language of quality control in public service.

Senior managers feel strongly that social workers should have maintained their commitment to children - even if police minimised the risk. But their directorate seems to have bowed to domination by a police force that had neither done its homework on what children have to suffer nor grasped the ethos of collaboration with other professionals.

In the case of Leanne White, who was murdered in 1992 when she was three years old, the role of the police was hardly scrutinised by the subsequent inquiry. Its report confirms, however, that the police do not involve themselves in early stages of investigations, and condemns the police for criticising other agencies while offering no review of its own failures.

Nottingham Sherwood's Labour MP, Paddy Tipping, was surely not wrong when he reckoned: 'There is no doubt about it, the police have got to get in there and investigate. It is OK for the police to say 'we weren't involved' in the Leanne White case, but the question is why weren't they? And the answer to that is that people didn't think they'd be interested.'