Whatever the collective noun for Serious Case Reviews is (a flurry, a murmuring, an avalanche, a papering, an omphaloskepsis*, a whitewashing?) that’s what we’ve had over the last few weeks.
The first I read about this week was from Glasgow, and involved a foster carer who was murdered by a young person placed in her care. The main lesson was to have been cautious about the very good progress this vulnerable and damaged young person was making in the early days of the placement and to have had proper access and regard to the full chronology of his troubled life.
The second was Child T, a four year old in Haringey.
Now, if there’s anywhere in the country that is nervous about Serious Case Reviews, it would be Haringey. They were the authority in Victoria Climbie and Baby P, and they really don’t want to have a third tragedy. They were brave to hold this one, since it didn’t automatically meet the criteria and they could have ducked conducting one.
In my opinion, they did the right thing in conducting one – I may as well say up front here, that there are real problems with the way they managed the case prior to that decision. (Whilst I think professionals are often harshly blamed after the event for failing to see into the future, this isn’t one of those. Sometimes a cock-up is just a cock-up, and I won’t defend those. I have to call this one as I see it, and children were harmed here over many months as a result of professional error)
The child did not die, fortunately, though on removal in 2011 was found to have fifty bruises on his body. On my count, there were four episodes of bruising. Alarmingly, the last happened AFTER he was seen with 50 bruises, a few days later, whilst the case was being prepared for Court with a plan of him continuing to live at home.
(A) On Wednesday 30/6/10, at 10:30 pm, Child T was taken to the Accident & Emergency Department (A&E) at North Middlesex Hospital (NMHUT) by his mother and Mr C. He had bruising around the eyes, forehead and nose. Bruising and swelling was said to have become worse during the day. Mr C said that Child T often ran around the house and ‘bangs and hits himself on the wall’
Child T was three years old at the time. You may, if you are familiar with Baby P, be having shuddering sensations at the suggestion that the child’s bruises were self-inflicted. We have heard that before.
It gets worse than that though, because what follows is something that the professionals never had in Baby P – a direct disclosure
(B)On 4/7/10 a Polish speaking doctor, PR1, spoke to various family members who were visiting the hospital. He was told, by Child W, that Mr C had hit her so as to cause bruising to her bottom. PR1 spoke to CP2 who subsequently spoke to the Enfield Emergency Duty Team2 (EDT) as it was now the evening. It was agreed that there were no grounds to keep Child W in hospital that night but that the concerns raised should be followed up the next day. The following day, 5/7/10, before any follow-up action was taken, Child T was removed from hospital by his mother and Mr C, without the agreement of medical staff. Over the previous days Mr C had increasingly expressed his annoyance about the child’s prolonged stay in hospital, because, he said,of the disruptive consequences for family life
[Note the involvement of Enfield, rather than Haringey – it seems that the hospital were slightly confused about which local authority were responsible, but after that referral the case got properly passed on to Haringey]
I have to say, as a child protection lawyer advising local authorities, having missed (A) would be quite bad but not dreadful, but having missed (B) would be dreadful. Having missed (B) against the backdrop of Baby P is, on the face of it, hard to fathom.
There were bruises to a young child, unexplained, the sibling was saying that the mother’s boyfriend hit the children, the boyfriend was being annoyed in hospital and the child was removed without the consent of the doctors. That is pure alarm bell territory.
(It doesn’t HAVE to equate to removal, but it is certainly something that ought to have made everyone involved very very concerned and vigilant)
A strategy meeting took place – the medical opinion was reported to be inconclusive and the police who attended weren’t aware of a domestic violence callout between mum and Mr C that same day.
[This is what was actually said, and anyone who thinks that this is ‘inconclusive’ is on another bloody planet
The medical report considered at the Strategy Meeting had stated that “I am very uncomfortable with the injury on his forehead. I do not accept that a 3 year old child would bang his head with such severity and not cry out. In addition, bruising on the leftside is in a very unusual place and this cannot be incurred either from fallingor from play. I cannot exclude the possibility that some of these may have arisen from pressure from fingers” ]
Despite the strat meeting having concluded and the case progressing to relatively low action on the basis of the social worker and police deciding that the medical opinion was “inconclusive”, the Consultant Paediatrician who first saw the child (CP1) wrote a letter containing this
(C) “I would like to highlight that this child had an injury to his forehead resulting in a haematoma… that could only have occurred if there were a large amount of force on impact … the second fact that concerns me greatly is the presence of bruising on the left side of the rib cage. This is an unusual place for bruising to be found in a child and implies a second mechanism of injury taking place, once again for which the parents claim to have no knowledge. My concerns here are that this is a 3 year old boy who has had two separate injuries for which there have been no explanations and each injury individually is concerning and in an area which is quite uncommon in a child of this age”
I’ve defended social workers before, and I will again, and I defended particularly the social workers in Haringey who worked Baby P because I think that they were fundamentally let down by a paediatrician who didn’t give them the medical evidence they would have needed to act and get the case before a Court. The paediatricians here did their job properly and they simply weren’t listened to.
But I am afraid that this is a smoking gun. If that came across my desk, we would be having an amazingly urgent legal planning meeting (i.e, “I’m on my way to you, RIGHT NOW”) to discuss this child and work out what we would be doing to keep the child and siblings safe. If the conclusion was to work with the family to keep the child at home, I’m fairly sure we would have been getting the case before the Court to endorse that plan. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with any local authority lawyer whose advice would not have been “this is going before a Court, as soon as possible”
(D) On 9th August 2010, Mr C presented at his GP with self-inflicted cuts to his arms. The GP did not make any referral to social services.
(E) On 30th August 2010, the mother was seen at an obstetrics appointment with bruising on her arms – the notes showed up the suspicions of domestic violence, the obstetrician invited mother to be admitted overnight, mother declined. She was very nervous and keen to leave, and Mr C was very keen to get out of the hospital. No referral was made.
(F) On 31/8/10 Mr C took Child T to the GP, saying that he was concerned that he child bruised easily. He had bruises to his back and legs. The GP (GP1) arranged blood tests which indicated no medical explanation for the bruising. On 17/9/10 Child T was seen by a nurse (PN1) for immunisations. She noticed bruises on his arms, legs and back and asked a GP (GP2) to see
him. GP2 examined the child and arranged for him to be seen for follow-up on 22/9/10.
Now, I already thought that (B) and (C) were bad things to miss, but to add (F) into the equation just reinforces this. Very often with Serious Case Reviews there’s a prediction bias and hindsight bias that means that working back from a known outcome, we tend to see all the footprints leading up to that event as being obvious and inexorable and that ‘of course that’s where this is all going, how could nobody see it’
But regardless of that, which is something to always be very cautious about; if you have suspicious bruises to a child, a strong paediatric opinion about those bruises and then another episode of bruising two months later; something needs to be happening.
A worker could, potentially, have gripped the case and made a decision that this risk could be safely managed at home; but that needs to be a conscious and deliberate and deliberated decision, not just inactivity resulting in that happening. It is STAGGERING that the social worker on the ground didn’t ever share the paediatrician’s letter at (C) with his/her manager.
(G) On 14th September 2010, Mr C told his GP that he was injecting heroin every day. Three weeks later, he said he was drug-free and needed no further help.
(H) When the sibling child Y was born in December 2010, hospital staff noted tension and arguments between the mother and Mr C
(I) On 15th February 2011, the case was closed by the social worker
(J) Three days later, on 18/2/11 (a Friday) police were called to the family homeby Ms B who made allegations of violent conduct by Mr C to her and to Child T. Police could see that the child was extensively bruised and they arrested Mr C. Child T was left overnight with his mother. There was no recorded consultation with the EDT at that point
(K)The following day Child T was taken by police for medical examination and was seen by a paediatric registrar (PR2). The EDT had been made aware of the situation in the morning and both police officers and an EDT officer, EDT1, attended the medical. Child T was found to have more than 50 bruises of varying ages and sizes. He told the doctor of having been hit with a belt and a
stick by Mr C. The doctor judged that many of the injuries were caused by physical abuse and that others were ‘highly suspicious’
(L) The doctor spoke to Ms B who described how she had been the subject of repeated physical assaults by Mr C. She also said that she had suspected that Child T was being abused by Mr C and that Child T had told her this. She further said that Child W had now also spoken of being physically assaulted by Mr C and that he had tried to drown her whilst bathing her a few weeks previously. She said she had not told Ms B at the time as Mr C had made her promise not to do so.
And this is obviously where proceedings finally began, right?
Wrong. Professionals agreed with mum that Mr C would move out, and that the children would stay with her.
(M) On 22nd February 2011, the children were all medically examined. The medical opinion was that the three older children had all been physically abused by Mr C, and that mother had failed to protect them and that the children should be removed to a place of safety.
As a result of that conclusion, the LA decided that proceedings were inevitable.
(N) The next day, (23.02.11) the social workers met with mum and told her that care proceedings were to be initiated. In a police interview at around the same time, Ms B said that she knew that Child T was hit more frequently when Mr C was taking drugs
(O) A Strategy Meeting was held on 25/2/11. Information had been gathered from the various health services involved and, for the first time, the facts of repeated bruising to Child T were drawn together with the knowledge of the current and previous injuries. Agencies were concerned that Ms B and MGM were aware of the abuse and had not acted to prevent it. It also appeared that there may have been discrepancies in the accounts they had given to various agencies. However there had been no evidence that either of them was responsible for any previous physical abuse and there was no indication that the children might be directly harmed by them, or did not wish to be with them. It was confirmed that care proceedings were to be initiated but that there should be no immediate attempt to remove the children.
(P) On 28/2/11 Ms B told SW2 that Child T had new bruising. Ms B claimed that she had asked Child T about this and he had said that the injuries had been inflicted by that social worker, SW2. Later that day Child T was taken to Accident & Emergency, NMUHT, in the company of his mother, a different Social worker and an interpreter. Child T said that the “lady” hit him. When asked what the lady looked like and how she did it, he was unsure. Following a medical examination, where new bruising was confirmed, and some new bruising was seen on Child W, all four children were brought into the care of the local authority.
On this one, I’m afraid that there is blame – it isn’t just a failure to predict something unpredictable, it isn’t taking an informed decision that the risk was manageable and the outcome turned out bad. This is a basic failure not to recognise what risk looks like and what to do with it.
I feel bad for the people involved, and who knows what the workloads and pressures were at the time; but I’m afraid that this is systemic failure, not just making a judgment call that proved wrong after the event. It is REALLY, really hard to see why that vital letter from the paediatrician at (C) never got escalated into a child protection issue. The social worker never discussed it with her manager, and it did not get escalated into a Legal Planning Meeting.
If this is happening at Haringey, which must be alive like no other authority to the perils of getting child protection decisions wrong, something has gone very badly awry – perhaps locally, perhaps nationally.
Again, as with Keanu Williams, the case was effectively ring-fenced into a ‘child in need’ case at an early stage, and thoughts about child protection disappeared once the decision was made that this was a “child in need” case. Even then, things aren’t great – he wasn’t properly treated as a “child in need” with a formal plan and review system. He just got lost.
I agreed with Eileen Munro that when one looks at Daniel Pelka’s case through the eyes of any individual professional it is hard to say that they got it wrong and that another worker in their shoes would not have acted similarly, but that’s not the case here.
In many ways, this Serious Case Review raises more worrying issues than the Baby P one – in that case, the local authority never had in their hands the medical evidence that would have allowed them to save Baby P. Here, the evidence was handed over and simply stuck in a filing cabinet without its significance being absorbed or considered until this child and his siblings sustained many more months of physical abuse.
I’m not sure that it gives us ‘lessons to be learned’ in general practice – the individual failings here were so pronounced and obvious that the real lesson is ‘if people don’t do their jobs properly, bad things can happen’.
Haringey’s Local Safeguarding board response, in the interests of fairness, is here – and the incidents were two years ago, so they have had time to make some changes.
(I didn’t think it was great, to be honest, and it was very light on how they would prevent social workers wrongly going down the ‘child in need’ path when child protection is the real issue. Or that a strat meeting could so utterly misunderstand what the medics were saying. But at least there’s now a powerpoint strategy. )
*For those who have made it thus far, Omphaloskepsis is ‘navel-gazing’ – it came into prominence during the Renaissance, when there was much debate about what a painter should do when painting the midriffs of Adam and Eve. Did they have belly buttons, or having never been in the womb, were they smooth? If God made Man in his own image, does God have a belly button, or not? Because this was such a controversial issue, many such paintings just have hands or branches covering the vital area.