The women they didn't listen to

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ISN'T it time for Nottinghamshire Chief Constable Dan Crompton to do the decent thing and resign? It was only the forensic determination of three women neighbours that led to the rescue of baby Abbie Humphries. Superintendent Harry Shepherd, who led the search, consulted a psychic medium, but did not respect the women's suspicions.

Our gaze was temporarily averted from the constabulary's investigative incompetence last week by the resignation of the chief constable's adjutant, the social services director David White. He quit after an unremitting report by the county's chief executive, Michael Lyons. The report had tracked the frightening decline of child protection in the county - 18 children have been killed in 18 months.

In the exemplary era of children's services in the late Eighties, one or two children a year were killed by their carers - much the same as in other counties. But in the Nineties, David White, a model of the Thatcherite manager, handed child protection into the grudging grip of the chief constable.

The director's disgrace is that he delivered a vigilant service to a police chief who has made dismissive statements about children' evidence. The chief constable answers only to the Home Office.

Can the Home Office ignore the professional community's protests about the police? Of course it can. But will Nottinghamshire's becalmed political system redeem itself by mobilising a revolt by the police authority?

Last week the chief executive brought the crisis to public attention. Nottinghamshire's ability to protect children was put at risk from the moment that the police began to dominate child protection, from the very moment that government guidelines demanded that the police lend their support not only to prosecution but to protection and let social services lead. But the police balked at co-operation with child protection specialists. They wanted not co-operation but control, and they triumphed.

The beginning of the end, according to the report, was 'a shocking case of large-scale organised abuse' in 1988. The outcome should have been 'celebrated as an example of outstanding child protection by Nottinghamshire social workers'. After the children's tormentors were convicted, the social workers were congratulated by the Prime Minister. The police, however, made statements that discredited them and the director of social services did not defend them.

It was the failure to prevent the murder of three-year-old Leanne White in 1992 that was finally David White's undoing. The chief constable, however, was immunised by a remarkable public pessimism. The chief executive found that a third of child abuse cases were not communicated to the police and most referrals that got through to the police prompted little or no action. The chief constable told the chief executive's working party on this crisis that the problem was his power struggle with social services. Yet this was a power struggle in which he was master.

For those with little interest in the bitter politics of child protection, Nottinghamshire presents a political problem: does the chief constable have a right to rule? Although the police were dominant in Nottingham, the chief executive's report complains of their 'diminishing involvement'; it finds their 'forensic investigative skills' wanting, and notes their 'minimalist' disclosure of information to colleagues. Under the county's current rules - written by the chief constable - even if Leanne White's social workers had asked for information on her killer's violence, the police would have denied them. The constabulary seem to have been determined to keep the secrets of suspects, despite the spirit of government guidelines.

When the Area Child Protection Committee (ACPC) called the professionals together last October to consider the child deaths crisis, the police didn't turn up. The chief executive's report is also critical of the ACPC's weakness, but with the director of social services involved, it was ineffectual.

The Social Services Inspectorate reported in 1993 that 'social workers had been seen to be properly critical of the lack of commitment and co-operation' from the police. The SSI also affirmed a training programme for social workers and police - but this collapsed after police participants walked out apparently in protest against the anti-racist element required by the Children Act.

The chief executive's report traces the origins of the police's attitude to the Broxtowe case in 1988 - when Harry Shepherd was second in command of the police team. What was important in this case was that allegations of bizarre ritual abuse aroused suspicions that other children had suffered at the hands of suspects who were still at large and uninvestigated. Satellite cases did indeed come to court. Judges later considered the case against the children's evidence made by the police and dismissed it.

Police attempts to discredit the evidence of these children, their carers and social workers - also forensic women - launched a guided missile into child protection. Leanne White's case, which concerned neither sexual nor ritual abuse, confirmed the Broxtowe workers' fear that if the police were supported in their failure to properly investigate the Broxtowe case, then the statutory services would fail to investigate old-fashioned assault and battery of children. The chief executive's report is their vindication.