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22 January 2001

Another crumbling public service

Do we really need an inquiry into Anna Climbie's death? Judy Hirst argues that we should already kno

By Judy Hirst

So who killed little Anna Climbie, the eight-year-old from the shanty towns of the Ivory Coast who came here in search of a better life? We know who starved, tortured and froze her to death: the child’s deranged great-aunt and her boyfriend who, at their Old Bailey trial, were sent down for life. And we know, from lurid accounts, how the pair’s devil-exorcising evangelical church may have been implicated in the child’s fate. But as for how such barbaric acts could occur, right under the nose of what, with no apparent sense of irony, is called the child protection services – an answer to that question may never come.

A social worker has been suspended. Internal investigations are under way. A top-level statutory inquiry, under the former chief social services inspector Lord Laming, has been set up. Yet long before this inquiry deliberates and reports, we can predict what it will say: much the same as the 50 or so other major inquiries since the death of Maria Colwell in 1973.

Like Anna, Maria Colwell died from brutal injuries at the hands of a close relative. In her case too, social services repeatedly ignored all the warning signs. In the decades since, the roll-call of child deaths – Jasmine Beckford, Tyra Henry, Kimberley Carlile, Rikki Neave and many, many more – has shown up the same gross negligence and systemic failure. Regrets have been expressed and changes made. The Children Act 1989 and a battery of other laws and regulations require social services, the police and other agencies to investigate and, above all, listen to children when serious neglect or abuse is suspected.

But nobody listened to Anna. Not only did the multiplicity of public agencies with which she came into contact – nine in all – either fail to notice or to act upon the unmistakable signs of severe emotional and physical abuse. Not only was there a complete breakdown of communication between paediatricians, police and social workers. It seems probable that this child, who spoke no English, was not even provided with a translator through whom to express her fears. Somehow, it escaped the attention of the authorities in Haringey, and the other London boroughs where she lived, that she had never attended school.

To begin to understand how a battered, bruised, emaciated child could be rendered invisible to the statutory services, we need look no further than a routine report on Haringey’s children’s services, carried out last year by the social services inspectorate. The inspectors found a seriously understaffed and underfunded service, spending 25 per cent less than even minimum budget levels on the authority’s at-risk and needy children. In some parts of the borough, as many as a third of management posts were vacant. Significantly – bearing in mind that Anna was brought into Britain on a false passport, and ended her life in a borough that includes 10 per cent of the country’s refugee population – the inspectorate warned that many “unaccompanied minors” were not receiving adequate protection.

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But that was in June 2000, several months after Anna’s death, and in the run-up to ministers placing Haringey social services under “special measures”. Less than 18 months earlier, a joint report by the inspectorate and the Audit Commission had come up with a very different, largely favourable verdict, praising the borough’s social workers for their ability to “manage risk and urgency well”, and the authority for its “positive procedures”. Whether the first report suffered from bureaucratic blindness, or the second from after-the-event back-covering, hardly matters. The vast discrepancy between their assessments does not inspire confidence in the ability of the forthcoming official inquiry to unearth the truth.

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But you will get the truth from Haringey social workers. They will tell you that the first report was a whitewash – while the second, if anything, understates just how bad things are. Staff in the borough are fiercely defensive of their suspended colleague, claiming she was a relatively inexperienced social worker dealing with impossibly large case-loads, in a climate of service cuts and crisis management, and that the decision to close Anna’s file came from above. As even the borough’s social services director admits, a proper assessment of the child’s case was never made, no care plan was ever put in place, and the different agencies were all at loggerheads. Like so many authorities, Haringey has positive procedures aplenty: but without the experienced staff and resources to implement them, they’re not worth a light.

According to the Bridge Child Care Development Service, which has carried out numerous investigations following deaths from child abuse, the Climbie case highlights the vast gulf between the tick-box performance targets that the government wants social services to deliver and the working conditions most social workers have to endure. Their lowly status and shoddy pay not only contribute to the profession’s recruitment blight and heavy dependence on agency staff (London and the south-east have vacancy levels of up to 20 per cent); the disrespect with which they are treated accurately reflects society’s view of its most vulnerable members.

“The government talks about root-and-branch changes coming out of this inquiry,” says Renuka Jeyarajah Dent, the Bridge service’s chief executive. “But it has known for years about the recruitment crisis, the inadequate training, the lack of child development work.” The most likely victims in this order of things are marginalised children like Anna, living in the twilight world of economic migrants, at the mercy of criminals who prey on clandestine semi-legal communities. For cash-starved social services departments, struggling to cope with punitive refugee and asylum-seeker directives, these children are all too easily out of sight, out of mind, just like the abused young people in north Wales children’s homes.

None of this is to excuse what was described in court as the “blinding incompetence” of those charged with Anna’s protection. What it suggests is that, far from suffering from an overdose of political correctness – leading, as some critics have claimed, to tolerance for child cruelty carried out in the name of different cultures – Haringey’s overburdened social services staff are ill-equipped to deal with the needs of its hugely diverse minority communities. Nor is their job made easier by the right-wing pundits who bay for social workers’ blood one week, and then want to drive more refugees to ground the next.

But then, it’s always easier to blame social workers, foreigners, satanic rituals or – judging from the response of health ministers – too much “sociology” for the evil in our midst: even when the evidence points to a crumbling social care system, yet another public service suffering from years of neglect, low esteem and underinvestment, just like the schools, the hospitals and the railways, only worse. The truth is easily accessible for anyone who wants to understand this shameful death. And yes, the devil really is in the detail.