29 October, 2006, Battle of Ideas, Royal College of Art, London
At his trial, Manning said that Kouao [his partner, the girl’s great aunt] would strike Victoria on a daily basis with a shoe, a coat hanger and a wooden cooking spoon and would strike her on her toes with a hammer. Victoria’s blood was found on Manning’s football boots. Manning admitted that at times he would hit Victoria with a bicycle chain. Chillingly, he said, ‘You could beat her and she wouldn’t cry … she could take the beatings and the pain like anything’…Victoria spent much of her last days, in the winter of 1999-2000, living and sleeping in a bath in an unheated bathroom, bound hand and foot inside a bin bag, lying in her own urine and faeces. It is not surprising then that towards the end of her short life, Victoria was stooped like an old lady and could walk only with great difficulty.
This is an extract from the Laming Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, to which Every Child Matters, the governments reforms of children’s services, we were told was a response. It was followed, not long after, by the similarly high profile Bichard Inquiry, into the tragic deaths of the Soham girls at the hands of Ian Huntley.They differed in as far as Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells were murdered by a stranger, whereas Victoria was murdered by those charged with her care. The government’s response to both inquiries had an impact and developed a remit that went far beyond the particulars of the matters with which they were supposedly concerned. Consequently one investigation came to frame the campaign for vetting people who work with children and the subsequent Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill currently going through parliament. The other became a vehicle for the project of‘mainstreaming’ child protection and questioning the capacities of parents and carers to look after even their own children.
But how did we get here? How was an investigation into a child’s murder by her carers turned into a catalyst for the wholesale transformation of children’s services in this country? A glance through the Every Child Matters Green Paper raises more questions that it answers. There is little mention of child protection and even less how we might avoid other children going the way of Victoria. Beyond child murder, we are told, Every Child Matters will address youth justice, youth activities, educational failure and exclusions from school, anti-social behaviour and young people as victims of crime; homelessness, substance misuse, obesity, suicide, truancy, domestic violence; teenage parents, foster parents, poor parents, unemployed parents, low income families and family breakdown; low birth weight, post-natal depression, self-harm and eating disorders.
But what you might ask has any of this to do with Victoria laying in that bath? Is some sort of equivalence being drawn between violent or sexual abuse and a child not doing their homework? If not, why are they being talked about in the same breath, in the same document, as if they had something to do with each other? There is a constant slippage between categories, a drawing together of material disadvantage and behavioral problems with abuse and neglect. All of which begs the question, if indeed every child does ‘matter’, ‘Why does every child matter?’ and ‘How does every child matter?’ Why every child and not that particular child, Victoria Climbie, and children like her? Is Victoria representative of a wider suffering? Is that what connects her to every other child? Or do all these other children ‘matter’ in a different way? Are they on that list somewhere? Throughout there are references to children being ‘at risk’. At risk of what – abuse, murder or missing an appointment with the dentist? The sentence is never finished. The threat is never specified.
Is it about children at all? Just as the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill is also about protecting ‘vulnerable adults’, it seems that we ‘matter’ too. In Wolverhampton the Council and Primary Care Trust have jointly declared that ‘Every Adult Matters’. In Lincolnshire, I understand that ‘Every Street Matters’. For the Scottish Executive, never one to do things by halves, Every Child, Every Young Person, Every Old Person and Every Community Matters .
But I digress. How did we get from child protection, something that used to be understood as a specialist field of social work, concerned with those rare instances of severe mistreatment of children by adults, to something that has apparently broken free of its institutional moorings and become a booming industry. In which so-called ‘experts’ routinely pedal fears that are often either spuriously founded, wildly exaggerated or both. Perhaps taking their lead from the Green Paper, they conflate a shopping list of dubious dangers from unscrupulous advertisers and bullying, to mobile phones and obesity, with serious abuse and neglect. In doing so they exaggerate both the gravity and the extent to which children and young people are exposed and made vulnerable to innumerable risks. It is the fears of the most innocuous or unlikely that the ‘industry’ stokes. To the extent that we now find ourselves in a situation where children it seems are universally vulnerable to the alleged toxicity of modern life itself.
Every Child Matters endorses this notion of a wider abuse being done to children. They are, claims the prime minister, “a standing shame to us all”. It is for this reason that we are told that “child protection cannot be separated from policies to improve children’s lives as a whole” but must operate “within the framework of universal services” and “be a fundamental element across all public, private and voluntary organizations.” All of which goes way beyond the duty on local authorities to protect children from significant harm as established in the Children Act 1989. Indeed, the only likely outcome is significant harm to children, their relationships with adults, and consequently to society as a whole.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Fostering Network a third of foster carers have been wrongly accused of abusing or harming the children they look after. The children are removed, causing all sorts of upset and instability while the claims are investigated. This is at a time when there is already a massive shortfall of carers with local authorities forced to run high profile recruitment campaigns. In the other Green Paper, Care Matters, recently published by the DfES, and aimed at transforming the lives of children in the care system, we are only reminded that when the state does assume responsibility for the upbringing of children already subject to disadvantages, it compounds these and fails them badly. Many leave school without any qualifications at all, find themselves living on the streets or else at her majesty’s pleasure.
Despite its own dismal record as a ‘corporate parent’, it is the state and those agencies it co-opts to its safeguarding agenda, that plays the critical role in generating and lending legitimacy to our anxieties. Almost in spite of itself, it adds fuel to the fire in an effort to engage with and recognise our fears and insecurities and ends up further reinforcing the case for more regulation, more protocols, more checks.But initiatives like the vetting of people working with children, the introduction of ‘no-touch’ protocols and the requirement in the Children Act 2004 to store and share information about the nation’s children on a database (or ‘index’ as it is now called) – amounting as they do to a new managerialism of fear – are as much an expression of this wider mood in society as they are policy solutions to specific problems. And only by understanding how they resonate with our anxious times can we see how incidents of abuse, real or imagined, are able to gain a wider significance. We need to challenge the heightening of risk-consciousness, on the one hand, and the exaggerated vulnerability of children, on the other.
What happened to Victoria and the Soham girls is thankfully very rare, and yet is often presented as emblematic of an uncaring society that is frankly too ready to believe the worst about itself. Their peculiarly horrible experiences gain a greater resonance and are credited with a wider significance than they truly deserve. As a consequence, we, both as a society and particularly those agencies and professionals involved, are less likely to learn any lessons where they are to be had. And finally and most importantly of all, both the authoritarian interventions of the state and the wider growth of the child protection industry threaten to poison the relationship that ministers and lobbyists claim to be in the business of defending – that between children, young people and the adults best able to look out for and look after them.