The news this week that another toddler has been murdered by her mother brings yet another reminder that when it comes to child protection in the UK, we haven’t got it right yet. Ayeeshia Smith, who died at the hands or should we say feet of her mother, who stamped on her with such violence that her injuries were likened to having been in a car crash. She was 21 months old. The toddler had been in foster care but was returned to her mother with tragic consequences. Like other toddlers gone before her, Ayeeshia Smith is testament to the institutionalised failures that leave vulnerable children at the mercy of mothers who cannot cope. Whilst natural fathers are simply disregarded in almost all cases, becoming helpless bystanders and witness to the risk that their child lives in but unable to help them. Ayeeshia Smith’s father, like others before him, raised the alarm about his child but to no avail and with tragic consequences.
Since the death of Peter Connolly (known as Baby P) in 2009, the list of child deaths goes on and on. Daniel Pelka (2013) , Hamzah Kahn (2013) , Ayesha Ali (2015) and Ayeeshia Smith (2016) were all killed by their mothers and or their step fathers whilst their natural fathers were prevented, sometimes with the support of authorities, from having a relationship with them. The common factor in all of this being the social work practice which is framed around our vulnerable families and the institutionalised beliefs which are promulgated by this practice. Beliefs which rest upon the idea that children belong with their mothers and should have contact with their fathers but ‘only where it is safe to do so.’
The ‘only where it is safe to do so’ strapline is a pernicious and dangerous one because it engenders fear of fathering and promotes anxiety about relationships between children and their dads who do not live with them. ‘Where it is safe to do so’ creates the idea that fathers must meet a threshold of approval before they can assume that they will continue their relationship with their children after separation. This leads to a tradition of looking in this ‘dangerous’ direction, whilst overlooking the fact that little children like Ayeesha Smith are at risk of being murdered by their mothers.
The truth of the matter is that children are murdered by their parents on a far too regular basis. They are murdered by their fathers and they are murdered by their mothers and any practice around the family should be alive to this fact and actively seeking to prevent it. How many serious case reviews will it take for social work as an institution to realise for example, that framing all support around one parent (usually the mother) whilst actively excluding the other (usually the father), places vulnerable children at heightened risk.
In a study recently undertaken, the overall risk assessment showed that the greatest risk of harm to children is from mothers with mood disorder such as depression or personality disorder. If this information is so readily available that it can be collected by a straightforward search on the internet, why is it not underpinning every social worker’s every day practice? In the same study, 40% of the participants had a mental health disorder but only 15% of these were psychotic. It would seem that children are most at risk from low level mental health problems in parents who have not had previous contact with mental health support services. But do children who die do so because their parents give no signs of being unwell? It would seem not. Reading the serious case reviews of the tragic deaths of these children, the opportunity to intervene was lost again and again. Not because the signs were not there, but because those responsible for seeing the signs were blinkered by their own beliefs perhaps and a lack of training and skill in seeing the risks in a child’s world.
It is time that a new model of analysis of risk to vulnerable children was created and promoted, one which is based upon the reality of what faces children rather than a institutionally held belief that one parent is good for a child whilst the other has to prove their worth to be involved at all. The research evidence demonstrates that mothers can and will kill their children and where there are signs that a child is vulnerable, they too should be assessed in their capacity to care for their child to ensure that they are safe to do so.
Analysing risk to children is not difficult when using the right tools. Risk arises from several sources in a child’s life. Generational, (having a parent who was abused is more likely to put a child at risk of abuse), situational (having a parent who is living in risky circumstances is more likely to put a child at risk), relational (having a parent who has risky relationships is more likely to put a child at risk) and recreational (having a parent who is using drugs or reliant upon alcohol is more likely to put a child at risk). Additionally emotional and psychological instability are both essential areas for investigation when there are signs of a child being abused.
Signs of child abuse are many and they are not just physical. One of the ways an abused child is often hidden from authority is by preventing the other parent from being involved, sometimes for years at a time. Psychologically unwell parents can actively and deliberately destroy a relationship between the child and the other parent in order to hide the continuation of familial dysfunction. Parental alienation plays a strong role in psychologically unhealthy family patterns. Institutionalised beliefs and practice perpetuate it.
The NSPCC in the UK counts the numbers of dead children and tells us that ‘every childhood is worth fighting for.’ Meanwhile another child dies and another serious case review is held. Until we are brave enough to challenge the institutional stereotyped ideas about who kills and why, we will be helpless to stop the next child dying and the next. It doesn’t take much to change this, just an understanding of psychology and the manner in which children learn to be parents at the hands of their own parents. Changing the toxic march of neglect and abuse and being brave enough to recognise that this is not about gender but about generational patterns of behaviour would bring long term gains in terms of the growth to full potential of all of the UK’s children. An outcome which is, quite simply, beyond risk, it is beyond value.