You would think that there would be so many levels of Turkey Army bureaucracy infesting our public services that mistakes would almost be impossible to make; that somewhere in the warren-like system, someone, somewhere would inevitably say “Hang on a minute—this isn’t right”.
After this week’s events involving Haringey Council at the Old Bailey, the answer has to be clearly not—although I suspect, with its £100 million a year budget, it’s through utter ineptitude rather than any laughable notion of under-staffing.
The case of 17-month-old Baby P, who despite being on the council’s at risk register, despite being seen 60 times by social workers in just eight months (that’s once every three days), and despite being the subject of two police investigations, was left to die in agony in a blood-stained cot with a broken back and multiple injuries after being tortured for months by his parents almost beggars belief. It has made me very sad and very, very angry. I actually couldn’t bring myself to read the long list of injuries published in the newspapers. The detail of how they were inflicted—“he was punched so hard in the mouth he swallowed a bottom tooth”—makes me feel faint.
And that’s where the anger overcomes the terrible sorrow, because Haringey Council has previous for this sort of thing, being the same social services department that was to blame for the death of little Victoria Climbie eight years ago. You would think that if any public authority had learned how to protect its children, it would be this one. But no.
We have the social worker who visited repeatedly and yet failed to spot the injuries caused by months of torture and, just four days before his death, was fooled by the boy’s mother smearing chocolate and nappy cream over his wounds.
We have the team leader who agreed that the baby should continually be returned to his home, despite two police investigations and the warnings of hospital staff.
We have the ‘chair’ of something called the Haringey Local Safeguarding Children Board who has shifted the blame quicker than an incontinent puppy, claiming that “The council didn’t kill Baby P; his parents did.”
And we have the doctor, the paediatrician who examined Baby P two days before his death and failed to spot that he was paralysed with a broken spine and also had several broken ribs and multiple other injuries. (Read that sentence back again and consider what it means. I bet you’re shaking your head, aren’t you?) She blamed this gross negligence on being unable to carry out a full examination because Baby P was “miserable and cranky”. Yes, I bet he was.
Still, heads will roll, won’t they? The people who allowed this horrific abuse to continue unabated will be sacked, won’t they?
Err ... no. At the time of writing, three written warnings have been issued and it has been made very clear that no-one will lose their job and no-one will be resigning. (I suspect that may have changed by the time you read this.)
And then, to top it off, we have that aforementioned ‘chair’ turning up on the TV news telling us, in that patronising tone the Guardian-reading classes use when they’re talking down to the rest of us, that “Lessons will be learned”.
I tell you what. I never want to hear a public servant using the phrase “Lessons will be learned” ever again. Because they’re clearly not, are they?
The sad thing is that we have to get to a point where a small child has been deprived of what was, admittedly, a short, miserable life before they will even say "lessons will be learned", let alone act.
UPDATE: I think that it's worth flagging up this excellent comment by Ian B.
It's kind of surreal sitting here defending social workers and doctors, but here I go...
There's something of a confusion between the magnitude of an error and the magnitude of its consequences. For instance; a person nods off at the wheel and bumps their car into a tree, causing a bit of damage and a fright. Another person nods of at the wheel, the car goes down an embankment and onto a railway line and there is a massive train crash with horrendous loss of life. Each made the same mistake, but the consequences are orders of magnitude different. Did the second person commit a greater crime than the first? They both did exactly the same thing.
Doctors and social workers, the latter in partcular, work in a continual grey area. Their entire working lives are based upon exercising judgement. They are trying to find a middle ground between negligence and over-zealousness which is not, and cannot by any means, be defined objectively. It is thus practically impossible for them to "get it right" because there is no right to get it. Just opinion. That's why there is never going to be perfect child protection, so you have to decide whether you'd prefer innocent parents be persecuted by the over-zealous, or evil parents get away with it. You can't have your ideal. It doesn't exist. It is the same as asking for a court system that never frees the guilty or convicts the innocent. It can't be done. All you can do is decide whether you think it better to protect the innocent knowing some of the guilty will go free, or convict the guilty knowing some innocents will suffer. (Case in point, English common law traditionally has been based on the first premise).
So, we can roll the heads of these doctors and social workers, but it isn't going to really fix anything. There are doctors up and down the country making duff diagnoses every day, some of them leading to death or serious permannent damage. There are others prescribing treatments that are foolish and unnecessary (the manias for lowering cholesterol and salt intake, for instance). Medicine is inherently blurry and inexact. And there are social workers making bad judgements every day too- persecuting the harmless and neglecting the dangerous. It's inherent to the job.
So, we can decide to protect innocent parents from persecution and accept the occasional Baby P, or we can rigorously monitor children, snatch them away pre-emptively, and leave the bereft parents to cry alone in the night. And still get the occasional Baby P anyway. Because it's not science. It's judgement, by flawed human beings. It would be nice to do better than that, but we can't.
Your humble Devil, of course, thinks it "better to protect the innocent knowing some of the guilty will go free" although many statists would take the view that it is better to "convict the guilty knowing some innocents will suffer". Except, of course, that many statist, almost by definition, do not think that the innocents will suffer because the state is omniscient (although I've never understood why).
However, given the system that we currently have, I think that it is perfectly acceptable to flag up and rail against such egregious failings as we have in this instance simply so that the people involved might act differently the next time that this happens.
The case of Baby P highlights persistent and appalling failures of multiple agents—doctors, social workers, police and managers—not simply the misjudgement of one person. We might say that such things will occasionally happen—this case has caused so much outrage simply because it is so rare—but if one more innocent life is saved because, say, the next doctor examines the baby properly despite the child being "miserable and cranky", then I cannot see how that would be a bad thing.
UPDATE 2: the News of the World story is just appalling. It's the deliberate attempt to break the boy's spirit that I find particularly distasteful.
“And he lanced off the tops of the tot’s fingers with a Stanley knife like you would a boil. He said it made it easier for him to then use the pliers to grip onto the fingernails and rip them off. It makes me shudder.
“He made Baby P kneel in front of him, with blood oozing from the ends of his fingers, and hold out his hands for more punishment.
As I have said, I think that we will find that the main perpetrator will be spending his life in Broadmoor rather than Belmarsh. Although he should still be beaten to a pulp.