Where have all the flowers gone?

This week Liam Fee’s name was added to the list of toddlers killed by their caregivers, alongside Peter Connolly, Victoria Climbie, Daniel Pelka, Ayeeshia Smith and Keegan Downer. And the newspapers have turned their gaze to their favourite post-mortem task of placing the blame. The conclusion, as ever, will be the ‘born evil’ women who killed him, and social workers who ‘failed to prevent’ the death. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Firstly, how can social workers prevent child deaths when their services have been cut back so much that thresholds for intervention have risen ever higher?  Social workers are over stretched and morale is at an all time low. When they intervene too much they are demonised by the press as baby-snatchers. When they don’t intervene enough they are demonised as failures who didn’t protect children. Since legal aid was slashed, court proceedings expect them to be both case worker and to cover the role of expert to the court. The social workers I know are amazing people, dedicated to helping make a difference with families, but tell me that some workplace cultures focus on form-filling and don’t allow as much time out in the field intervening with families as they would want.

Personally, I think prevention takes more than reactive services like the current remit of social work. We need proactive screening services to spot where there is need much earlier, when interventions for families are cheaper and more effective. In my opinion we need universal health visiting back, for every birth registered to be followed by mandatory visits twice a year until the kid starts school and for that to include weighing and measuring the child and seeing them in just their pants. It will also see the home environment and the relationship between parent and child. Old fashioned, maybe, but it would hopefully catch malnutrition and serious injuries earlier, and save lives in cases like these.

Secondly, what kind of lives must those two women have had that they were so un-empathic that they could witness and ignore such suffering, let alone create it? There must have been great trauma to end up like that, and a total absence of nurture. Of course no experiences are an excuse for the sadistic things they did to the children in their care. But they can help us to understand what happened, and in doing so to help prevent a future recurrence of similar issues. If we just blame it on innate characteristics of the individual perpetrators there is little we can learn to prevent the same thing happening again (except perhaps chase the fallacy of a genetic marker for evil, which I’m almost surprised is not already being done, given the overly biological focus of research topics that are clearly more influenced by experience).

I’m not convinced that anybody is ‘born evil’. I think people are born with the capacity to be a wide range of things, and their experiences (particularly their early experiences with their caregivers) determine the direction of travel, the types of skills they develop and the behaviours that are in their repertoire. Given exposure to enough trauma, a total lack of safe attachment figures, few skills and loads of dysfunctional strategies, people can end up doing awful things, particularly with a hair-trigger tendency to fight or flight under stress.

This is an evidence based position, not just my opinion as a clinician. We have known for at least a decade that childhood experience is the leading predictor of the health and social well-being, and that this applies on the individual level as well as for the nation. But as well as the self-evident human cost, there is also a huge economic cost to society. Studies show that the financial impact of child maltreatment on the economy amounts to billions of pounds per year, and the impact on lifetime health and employment is equivalent to a diagnosis of diabetes. However, the costs are hard to measure, and occur throughout the person’s lifetime so they are not as obvious.

Violence in society is neither universal nor inevitable (in fact it is almost absent amongst central Thai or Lapp society). Violence is a behaviour that is caused and can be prevented. When it comes to predicting violence, it is clear that the propensity is hugely influenced by experiences in the home before the age of 3. We also know that various interventions to improve care and the quality of the attachment relationship, or the more drastic intervention of removing the child and placing them in a household with better care are highly effective. However, there are also sociopolitical factors at play. Once the use of violence is established in a society, the levels are influenced by many factors, including:

  • Economic inequality
  • Unemployment
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Violence in the media
  • Poor housing
  • Availability of weapons

And yet, over the last decade economic inequality has increased, social housing has been sold off, and more violence has been shown in the media. More hopelessness has been created by the cuts to benefits for people with disabilities, or living in homes with an extra room. Services for people using drugs and alcohol have been cut by austerity measures whilst the need for them has increased. So the government has increased the risk of violence, whilst (as with immigration, single parents or benefit fraud) blame is being directed onto vulnerable individuals and public services.

Liam Fee, Peter Connolly, Victoria Climbie, Daniel Pelka, Ayeeshia Smith and Keegan Downer are the tip of the iceberg. There are many child deaths from maltreatment that never make the news. Best estimates based on serious case reviews suggest 40-80 deaths of preschool children are caused by their caregivers per year. And of course, many more children are injured physically or emotionally every day. For every child experiencing abuse who is known to services, eight more are going unseen. But this is not down to individuals who are born evil, and it is not down to negligent social workers. It is a socioeconomic and political problem. And whilst the media propagates the narrative of individual blame and politicians turn a blind eye, children will continue to die.

Where have all these children gone, long time passing?
Where have all these children gone, long time ago?
Where have all these children gone?
Gone to graveyards every one.
Oh, when will we ever learn?
Oh, when will we ever learn?

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