Regulars to this quiet corner of t’Interweb will be aware that I have rather strong views on taking responsibility so I have been interested to find a number of articles recently on this theme. The excellent PortlyDyke has expressed the difference between responsibility and blame far better than I ever could.
Since her post, the media storm surrounding Baby P and Haringey Social Services has erupted, and now we have that bastion of public decency, The Sun, claiming to have a mandate for the sacking of the Director of Children and Young People’s Services. The same paper is also enjoying a frisson from the fact that at least one of the social workers involved is being driven out of her mind by the event and its coverage.
I don’t know the details about the Baby P case. I don’t know if Sharon Shoesmith, the Director concerned, is being blamed or held responsible (although it would appear that at least some of her colleagues are prepared to offer her support). But I do know that we are facing trial by emotion, by uninformed reaction, by hysteria. The people responsible for that child’s suffering and death are the ones who actually caused it, not the professionals who were asked to protect him. The latter failed to do so, and this may or may not have been due to incompetence, inexperience or lack of commitment. It is widely acknowledged that abusers are devious, manipulative, tricksy people who can confuse and misdirect even the most seasoned professional. The social workers, health staff and police involved may have tried everything possible but been held back by lack of resources, misguided belief in maternal devotion, or red tape (at which point engaging in the criminal act of kidnapping would have been their only other option).
In the same week as we were faced with the difficult facts and feelings around Baby P we also had further news about the alleged child abuse at Haut de la Garenne in Jersey. A commentary in The Observer about the public reaction to the recent findings made further uncomfortable reading. Rather than celebrate the fact that it seems children were not murdered and tortured as had been feared, there has been an air of disappointment that we can not expect further salacious details about events at the Home.
As my favourite superhero says "With great power comes great responsibility", and as a society we have (I think quite rightly) put the power of the parent above the power of the state. Our child protection is effective most of the time; a story such as this is news because it is unusual. However, that does not allow us to ignore Baby P, but what to do is not clear-cut.
Inevitably there are calls for stronger intervention to remove a child from a damaging/damaged family. I find this a worry – who is to say that my family values and lifestyle are or are not acceptable? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Do we seriously think that we should remove more children from their families? Should we not be helping the families find a way to break their history of deprivation and abuse rather than punish damaged adults further for failing to cope? Because at the same time as our moral outrage calls for stronger powers and increasing intervention we find that budgets for Social Services are being cut. Yet even without tragedies of this magnitude, we are confronted with increasing need, albeit usually at the opposite end of the scale with an aging population requiring greater support and more services.
But we have also abdicated responsibility for understanding complex issues and handed it to a media which is more interested in increasing readership through quick-hit headlines than in taking time to research and report difficult issues clearly. The media behaves like this because we encourage it. The best we can do in the face of such appalling stories is to encourage each other to stand up to the dreadful situation facing numerous children and their families, resulting in people who were once just as innocent and beautiful as Baby P becoming so damaged that they find themselves outcast. We can try to understand how they ended up that way instead of consigning them to damnation. We can all play our part in preventing more people from being destroyed and becoming destroyers. If we look to see where the power lies, it is not with deprived and damaged families; nor is it with the children we need to protect; it is not even with the professionals we delegate to be protectors but do not support and resource to achieve their task. The power is with us, to use as we choose.