Vulnerable children are dying, so where’s the outrage?

First published by The Herald on 22 January 2019

TIME was when the death of a child in neglectful circumstances could prompt decisive action from our political classes.

Take the case of Victoria Climbié. Two months after the eight-year-old Ivorian girl, who had suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her guardians, was murdered in the London Borough of Haringey in 2000, a public inquiry that ultimately led to an overhaul of English child protection policies was ordered. When, seven years later, the flouting of these policies led to the death of 17-month-old Peter Connolly – again, in Haringey – then children’s minister Ed Balls was so incensed that he threw convention to the wind to personally remove Sharon Shoesmith from her post as head of children’s services at the local authority.

The message sent was loud and clear: every child has an irrefutable right to be protected from harm and anyone found to fall short of that standard should expect swift and severe repercussions.

But that was then and this is now, and with all the oxygen of public debate being sucked up by arguments over which union should or shouldn’t be broken, or which former politician is plotting against his successor, the plight of our dead children – and what their horrific suffering should have taught us – risks being forgotten.

Take Lauren Wade, a Glasgow toddler who died malnourished, emaciated and riddled with lice in March 2015 after suffering long-standing neglect at the hands of her parents. When they were last week jailed for causing Lauren’s death, the significant case review into how health and social care agencies dealt with her family was released, making for damning reading. Yet despite the report finding that those tasked with protecting Lauren from harm had “missed opportunities” to do just that due to their lack of “professional curiosity”, the Scottish Government is yet to respond and no opposition politician has ever used Lauren’s case to quiz the government on its record when it comes to child protection.

Coming as it does after an equally damning report into the death of Fife toddler Liam Fee, who was murdered by his parents in strikingly similar circumstances in 2014, the silence is deafening – but not surprising. Indeed, despite the significant case review into Liam’s death being published in June 2017, the government has to date been questioned about the implications for child protection policy in just one written motion – from the Green Party’s Mark Ruskell – and one parliamentary question – from the SNP’s own Jenny Gilruth. The response in both instances was to point to an ongoing and as-yet inconclusive review of the law on neglect as a measure of action while also repeating the wholly unconvincing “lessons will be learned” mantra. Crucially, while Ms Gilruth asked for reassurance that “any failings of the relevant organisations involved will be dealt with robustly”, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stressed that “the only people who are responsible for the death of Liam Fee are the people who were convicted of his murder”.

The reluctance to lay blame at the door of any specific organisation is understandable given the strain they are undoubtedly operating under. Yet Ms Sturgeon’s promise that questions over “whether there is any more that the system could or should have done to protect that little boy” would be examined in detail appears to have fallen short of the mark. Meanwhile, the legislative changes to the law on neglect announced in the 2016 Child Protection Improvement Programme have yet to be drawn up, with the wheels of government turning so slowly that a public consultation on the matter only closed at the end of last year.

Even if legislation is passed, there can be no guarantee that no other child will suffer the same fate as Lauren Wade, Liam Fee or the countless other children who are enduring neglect and abuse on a daily basis. As the case of Baby P in Haringey showed, having child protection laws is all very well in principle, but they are ultimately rendered useless if no one takes action to ensure they are being enforced in practice. At the same time, while the cases of both Liam Fee and Lauren Wade have highlighted the shortcomings of numerous child-protection professionals, there appears to be no appetite on the part of the public to give those professionals greater powers to intervene, with the SNP’s controversial and yet to be implemented named person legislation being branded Big Brotherish right from the off.

How best to protect vulnerable children without undermining parents is a vexed issue alright, but while it is clear that there may be no answers at all, let alone quick or easy ones, the silence on the part of the political classes – and opposition politicians in particular – is nonetheless troubling. Ed Balls may have acted hastily in the wake of the Baby P scandal, as Sharon Shoesmith’s successful unfair dismissal case later proved. But at least by making a fuss and taking the action he did, he showed that he gave a damn. Can anyone honestly say they have done the same in the name of Lauren Wade or Liam Fee?