Claire Fox 04 March 2009

A needle in a haystack

Looking for evidence of child abuse is like searching for a needle in a haystack. But the task is made all the more difficult when the haystacks of suspicion just keep getting bigger, says Claire Fox
When, in wake of the Baby P tragedy, LGA chair Margaret Eaton warned against vilifying social workers, Ed Balls obviously wasn’t listening. 
So keen was the children’s secretary to distance the Government from blame and indulge in witch-hunts, that he went on live television to announce the effective dismissal of Sharon Shoesmith, head of Haringey’s children’s services.
With breathtaking arrogance, he installed Ms Shoemith’s replacement while boasting: ‘I have powers to intervene and remove someone who is not fit for office’.
Mr Balls has also made it clear that from now on, central government will be more ‘hands on’ in relation to local government children’s services. Phew, that’s alright then. Child protection is in safe hands. 
But just hold on. In all of the blame-shifting, the role of central government’s policies has got off far too lightly. I am not here to apologise for appalling local incompetence, but it is infuriating that the Government has avoided recriminations for how it previously exploited another child’s terrible death – that of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié – using it to politicise the whole issue of child protection.  
According to the recent Ofsted report, Haringey’s crime was failing to implement the recommendations of Lord Laming’s 2003 inquiry into the Climbié death. But child protection has become disorientated precisely because of the policy that emerged from that very inquiry.
The Every child matters policy gave rise to a new philosophy, shifting the balance of child protection from a targeted service aimed at protecting the minority of children to making all services relating to all children adopt child safety as a central concern, with the clear message that every child must be protected ‘from the risk of harm’. 
This precautionary approach is exemplified in the invidious new ContactPoint database, designed to track and monitor all 11 million children in England and Wales. Such unprecedented official surveillance dangerously threatens to erode the distinction between serious cases of abuse which merit intervention, and a generalised suspicion about child abuse in every family. 
Post-Baby P, Ofsted’s chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, suggested all those who came into contact with children had to learn how to ‘spot warning signs of abuse’. Ms Gilbert is repeating the mantras of Every child matters that recruited an army of professionals to pool information, while broadening out what constitutes ‘signs of abuse’. 
When the policy was originally announced, Margaret Hodge, the-then children’s minister, used the example of a GP thinking a toddler was underweight and a nursery nurse noting a child looks miserable. ‘Put these two items together and you realise something could be going on’. Additionally, all aspects of children’s welfare, including everything from healthy eating to economic wellbeing, now fall under the remit of child protection. Needless to say, this can mean not seeing the wood for the trees and threatens to clog up the system with too little distinction between minor and serious ‘warning signs’. 
Ken McLaughlin, author of Social work, politics and society: From radicalism to orthodoxy points out that, since the introduction of Every child matters, the number of children ‘of interest’ to child protection services has risen from around 100,000 to four million. Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the LSE, highlights the dangerous consequences: ‘If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack [serious abuse], then you are going to make things much harder by making the haystack even bigger’ (BBC TV’s Panorama 17 November 2008). Mr McLaughlin concludes: ‘If we are encouraged to see abuse everywhere, we lose the ability to focus on those areas where suspicion is warranted.’
The recruitment of teachers, doctors, and nursery workers into spotting signs of abuse, threatens to sideline the specific expertise of child protection social workers.
 The original appointment of Ms Shoesmith is a case in point. She was one of the new breed of children’s services directors, tasked by the Government in the wake of the Climbié case to join up education and children’s social care. 
No matter that she was not a social worker; we’re all child abuse spotters now. How ironic that Mr Balls’ ‘big idea’ is unannounced visits to social work departments from Ofsted inspectors. His cheap posturing and knee-jerk policy making is a distasteful and dangerous epithet to Baby P. Social workers and councils have been negligent, but more in failing to admit that a more heavily regulated, centrally-dictated version of the same is the last thing any of us – especially vulnerable children – actually needs.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas
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