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Last month marked ten years since Victoria Adjo Climbié, a little eight-year-old girl born near Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, died in London following months of horrific cruelty, torture and neglect.
Her murder at the hands of her great-aunt Marie-Therese Kouao and Kouao's boyfriend, Carl Manning, prompted the largest ever review of child protection arrangements in the UK which was headed by Lord Laming. Although most of his 108 recommendations became law in the 2004 Children Act, a new report by Lord Laming following the death of baby Peter Connelly, who died in August 2007 in similar circumstances to Victoria, concluded his reforms were not widely implemented.
Lord Laming gave the keynote speech last week at Family Law's Medical Evidence in Child Abuse Cases Conference 2010. He spoke to the large audience about the challenge of implementing good practice, of getting it "off the page and into everyday practice at the front door of each of the agencies".
I spoke to Lord Laming after his speech and I started by asking him if, when he heard about the baby Peter case, he was angry that many of his recommendations weren't implemented.
"Yes, although my concern was for the child. It's a terrible setback it's awful for the child but also it undermines the public's confidence in the system in that society, I think, has the right to expect that in this day and age we can prevent awful things like that happening to a child and of course I find it very dispiriting."
Since the baby Peter case there has been a huge increase in the number care applications, does he think that perhaps the pendulum has swung the other way and local authorities are now too risk adverse?
"No I don't because I think that there has been an introduction of a different system, the Public Law Outline, for the way in which cases, applications for care, are presented to the court and this is in order to try and speed up the actual element within the court by doing a lot of the preparatory work more effectively before it gets into the court. Whilst that system was being introduced there was a dip in the number of cases that came before the court because the new system was just being bedded in and being introduced. That system is now in place so it was always expected that there would then be an increase in the number of cases that would come before the court.
"Of course baby Peter will have had an effect, but my own view is that cases are not brought before a court for trivial reasons, there's no tendency to bring cases of this kind for frivolous or anything other than serious reasons. But if they were brought before the court for anything less than persuasive reasons - good reasons - the court would sort that out. The court is very rigorous in the way it does its work."
Last week the Local Government Association (LGA) said that implementing some of Lord Laming's recommendations was not practicable. They were particularly critical of recommendation 19.1 in his latest report which states that when a case is referred from another professional such as a police officer or health worker, a cross agency assessment should be carried out. The LGA say that this will result in a 300% increase in the number of such assessments and an extra 6,300 social workers would be needed at a cost of nearly £250 million annually. I put the LGA's comments to Lord Laming.
"I was not advocating a full all bells and whistles super assessment that goes on for 60 pages or whatever they say it does. I was saying initially let's have a look at the child, talk to the child, find out the circumstances and find out what further action might be needed. The action that might be needed could be done by an education welfare officer perhaps, a health visitor, it could be done by a local Sure Start Scheme, it doesn't have to increase the caseload of social workers.
"I think the LGA in their comments on this is absolutely fundamentally wrong because I believe that the first time a GP or a health visitor decides that they must refer a case to social care services - bearing in mind that none of this is done frivolously or in trivial circumstances - the first time that they do it and they get a negative response from social care services means that they will never do it again and that means in future children will fall through the cracks.
"We can't complain if we actually deter the services from highlighting possible needs of children and what we ought to be doing is encouraging much more joint working. This I regard as absolutely fundamental to the whole way of working and I thought it was an unsubstantiated and, sad to say, unhelpful comment."
What about the financial constraints that local authorities are under?
"Everybody has to operate within a budget, budgets are not open blank cheques, and I can well understand that. I've operated that way throughout the whole of my professional career but it depends where you put your emphasis. My emphasis is that our first responsibility is to keep children safe and prevent these awful things happening to them, if that is your responsibility then you have to give that a priority within your budget and other things may have to go, but to say that we are just going to ignore the needs of very vulnerable children seems to be unacceptable."
Finally I asked Lord Laming about his view about the increase to the court fees paid for by local authorities for care orders. On 1 May 2008 the Family Proceedings Fees Order came into force and increased the fees from £150 to £5,225 for a fully contested court case.
"I think the fees ought to be removed, I don't understand the reason for the fees. Firstly, it can't be claimed that they would deter frivolous applications for care because if the local authority succeeds in getting a care order it is going to potentially cost them a huge amount of money by having the child in public care. Secondly, it seems to me odd that the public purse on the one hand gives £40 million to the local authority and on the other the local authority gives it back when they make an application for a care order.
"Finally I think that where the state decides it must intervene in family matters to the degree of trying to have parental rights removed from parents to the state, then frankly fees are not a relevant matter."
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