I write this at the end of the week in which two child safeguarding stories have featured in the news in England. If anyone had told me when I started this blog that I would end up writing about the failure of the State to take care of children, I would not have believed them. What caused me to change course was when the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, invoked the tragic death of 7 year old Khyra Ishaq as evidence of what he perceived to be the dangers of home education. In the wake of that statement, I reviewed both the Care Proceedings for her siblings (March 2009) and the Serious Case Review by Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board (July 2010). The latter has become the most read item on this blog, with several page views most days. In the light of this I now comment here on instances where the State’s safeguarding hands have proved to be less than safe. In 2013 I highlighted the sad death of Daniel Pelka, who (though well known to Social Services) was murdered by his mother and her partner. Last year my only post was to report on the abuse of an estimated 1400 young girls which continued for over a decade in Rotherham.
Now in 2015 two more cases of the State failing young people have been in the headlines within a week. The one which involved most young people is the abuse of up to 370 girls across the Oxfordshire area who may have been the victims of child sexual exploitation over the past 15 years. The Serious Case Review was published on 3 March and you can find comments on it by the BBC, Guardian, Huffington Post and of course elsewhere. Much of this abuse took place whilst Ed Balls was the Minister for Children, Schools and Families. The BBC summarises some of the Report’s findings as follows:
The report found no evidence of wilful professional neglect or misconduct by police or social services but said there a “worrying lack of curiosity” about what was happening to the girls. It said the issue of child sexual exploitation was not widely understood and officials failed to notice the signs of the abuse over a number of years. Some of the girls were abused using objects such as knives and baseball bats while others were bitten, scratched, beaten or burnt. The report said much of the extreme abuse was not escalated to senior managers but should have been. In response to the question, “Could CSE have been identified or prevented earlier?” report author, Dr Alan Bedford, said: “The simple answer is yes.” Professional work was not good enough and the failure to recognise the signs of CSE, and the fact that cases were seen in isolation, meant it continued for longer than could have been the case.
The report revealed that a view had developed among staff that victims, who were often seen to be from difficult families, were bringing problems on themselves. They were described as “precocious” and “very difficult girls making bad choices”, who had decided to adopt a certain lifestyle and were exaggerating their claims. As a result, the girls were dismissive and hostile to staff because they felt like they were being criticised. Staff in turn allegedly treated victims without common courtesies and subjected them to “snide remarks”.
The Guardian report states:
Police and social services in Oxfordshire will be heavily criticised for not doing enough to stop years of violent abuse and enslavement of six young girls, aged 11-15, by a gang of men. Such was the nature of the abuse, suffered for more than eight years by the girls, it was likened to torture. All of the victims had a background in care.
Is it any wonder that home educating parents were outraged in 2009 when Ed Balls was arguing that children could only be protected if they were “known” to the State. All the victims of this abuse in Oxfordshire were known to the State, but its officers (Social Workers and Police) not only ignored these victims but treated them with contempt! It seems that the State’s hands are suffering from a very serious case of butter-fingers!
The second case in the news this week has been the conviction of two people for the manslaughter of eight year old Ayesha Ali, in August 2013. This little girl was found dead in her bedroom in Broomfield Road, Chadwell Heath, London with more than 50 injuries including bite-marks. Today (6 March) her mother Polly Chowdhury, 35, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for manslaughter, whilst her female lover and co-defendant, Kiki Muddar, 43, received 18-years for the same crime. The events of this crime are so sad and sordid that I have no intention to focussing on them here. If you want to know more here are a selection of news reports: BBC, BBC, Independent, Huffington Post. There are many similarities between the deaths of Ayesha Ali and Khyra Ishaq: a broken family and heavy religious language being used by a non-parent to pressurise a mother to be cruel to her child[ren] being two. However, there are also two areas where these tragic deaths are very different.
Ed Balls cited Khyra because the mother withdrew her and some of her siblings from the school claiming that she was going to home educate them when the staff at her school began to question her about her family’s well-being. Balls’ argument was that if Khyra had remained in school the authorities would have been able to intervene. The reality however was that her school had on more than one occasion contacted both Social Services and the police asking them to check on Khyra’s and her siblings’ welfare. Neither had acted decisively in response to the school’s referrals. In contrast to Khyra, Ayesha was in school. Her parents split in December 2012, seemingly in part as a result of Kiki Muddar’s influence on Polly Chowdhury, and this seems to have afforded Muddar increased opportunity to put herself between mother and child. One BBC report states that the court was told that “The physical abuse began in the school summer holidays.” However the emotional abuse was well established whilst Ayesha was attending school. The court has released images of two “letters” to herself written by Ayesha, one of which is dated 19/4/13 – which was of course well before the start of the summer holidays!
A report in Barking and Dagenham Post says a Serious Case Review has been launched into Ayesha’s death. It quotes a spokesman for Barking and Dagenham Council as stating that Ayesha was not known to its safeguarding service. The same article also includes part of a statement from the Council which said it was “deeply saddened by this tragic event, which could not have been predicted”. The statement continue, “This was a terrible, unexpected, incident. The child appeared to be a happy, loved child, who was a delight to teach at school. She seemed to have been managing her parents’ separation well.”
Now I am not criticising the Council or the school for failing to spot the signs of the emotional abuse Ayesha was experiencing during the period she was attending school. To take the necessary level of interest in each member of a class of around 30 children is impossible for any teacher. I am however criticising those politicians and local council officers who continually argue that children in schools will be protected from abusive parents and other people in their family home. Clearly they cannot be, and it is foolish to expect teachers to act as policemen as well as educators. Those who say that schools are places of safety are seemingly blinded by political dogma and consequently unable to acknowledge the truth.
The second difference between Khyra’s broken family and Ayesha’s is that there does not appear to have been any contact between Social Services and the Chowdhury household. Again this is not to criticise Barking and Dagenham Council staff, but to point out that, like the 370 girls abused in Oxfordshire cited above, the Ishaq family was known to both Birmingham Social Services and to the West Midlands Police Service, both having also been alerted to her ex-school’s concerns for her well-being.
The deaths of these two little girls partly at the hands of their own mothers, after months of neglect and punishment instigated by an outsider to their respective families, are both tragedies which should not have happened. Together though they highlight the folly of claiming that home education was to blame for Khyra’s death.
Being in school did not safeguard Ayesha!
We now await the publishing of the Serious Case Review into her manslaughter.