Women and Children

The right decision

We should never have asked how Lisa Arthurworrey got it wrong in the Victoria Climbié case, says Liz Davies, but rather how she was ever expected to get it right given the attitudes of her employers and the government's agenda at the time

Thursday June 9, 2005 Guardian
Lisa Arthurworrey
Lisa Arthurworrey overturned a decision to place her on the protection of children register. Photo: PA

Social work professionals know how to protect children. The knowledge base is there loud and clear from every child abuse inquiry since 1945.

Research has shown that existing procedures such as the child protection register do protect children effectively. Research also tells us that a common feature of child abuse tragedies is an inexperienced social worker, untrained for the highly complex task of protecting children, poorly managed and overburdened with a high caseload.

Placing Lisa Arthurworrey's name on the Protection of Children Act list was a draconian measure designed to put fear into every child protection professional inevitably destined to make some mistake in the course of their career. In this sphere of work children will die - not at the hands of social workers, but of those charged with their care. I have been inundated with correspondence from social workers stating that their situation is similar to or worse than that of Ms Arthurworrey.

Child protection work has been seriously eroded since 1995 when the emphasis was placed on the 'family support' model over and above a proactive child protection investigation. Joint investigation work with police may take months or years and doesn't fit with current government timescales and the conveyor-belt approach so apparent in this case. Protecting children cannot be mechanical. Putting ticks in boxes will not work. Skilled professional judgement is key, as is multi-agency debate and analysis within formal structures.

At the part eight review, the Victoria Climbié inquiry, the employment tribunal and the care standards tribunal, Ms Arthurworrey continually admitted to her serious mistakes. This was never in doubt. However, she was charged with 11 counts of misconduct. This is a different concept entirely which the tribunal declared did not apply in any respect. It is an important distinction.

She was following flawed procedures written by her team manager which were not aligned with local or national guidance, she was not trained in joint work with the police and she was given wrong instructions from her managers. Evidence of her caseload, not available to the Laming inquiry, showed that she was overburdened beyond belief. Child abuse cases had led to no liaison with police or actioning of Section 47 (Children Act 1989) responsibilities to investigate.

Ms Arthurworrey demanded vociferously at the tribunal for every single one of her cases to be reviewed. Her office had a sign on the wall reading "No police". The entire workplace culture was hostile to joint investigation with the police - how could any child gain protection in this context?

The question that should always have been asked about Ms Arthurworrey's involvement in the Victoria Climbié case was not why she failed, but how she was ever expected to get it right in the context of the chaos of Haringey council services at the time and the government steer away from interventionist strategies?

In the Climbié case no other professional - many far more experienced than Lisa - carried out their responsibilities effectively. With the exception of Lisa's manager, Angella Mairs, no other professional implicated in the case, no other professional from any of the other high-profile child abuse cases at the time and no senior managers from Haringey had their names placed on the list. The inequitable application of this measure was obvious.

The tribunal judgement to remove Ms Arthurworrey's name from the list should restore some confidence among social work professionals.

Victoria would surely have gained protection if the child protection systems had been in place for her. Policies and procedures need implementation. This doesn't happen by magic but by employers ensuring their staff have all the resources in place to enable them to protect children effectively.

The government must now rethink its blinkered universal preventative strategies which must not be at the expense of a focus on proactive specialist child protection social work.

Most importantly, plans to abolish the child protection register, the one tool which might have protected Victoria, must be rigorously opposed.

· Liz Davies is a senior lecturer in social work at London Metropolitan University
 

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 Full text

The Laming report (pdf)
28.01.2003: Alan Milburn's statement on the Laming report

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03.09.2004: David Batty - the blame game
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02.09.2004: NSPCC 'still waiting' for Climbié reforms
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22.02.2003: Climbié parents to sue for damages
05.02.2003: David Brindle - silent witness
29.01.2003: Twelve chances missed to save Victoria Climbié

 Q&A

30.01.2003: Victoria Climbié inquiry

 Analysis

15.03.2002: The implications for social care
15.03.2002: The implications for housing
15.03.2002: The implications for charities
25.03.2002: Political correctness or poor practice?

 Big issue

The Climbié inquiry

 Glossary

A-Z guide to public services and voluntary sector speak

 Useful sites

Climbié inquiry official site
Brent council
Ealing council
Haringey council
Social services inspectorate
Department of Health quality protects programme
Department of Health children's taskforce (pdf)
Department for Education children and young people's unit
NSPCC
NCH Action for Children
Childline