I’ve been reading a book by Eric Schlosser recently, called “Command and Control” – it is primarily about the history of incidents and accidents in America with nuclear weapons, Schlosser’s research turning up an eye-watering number of hushed-up accidents with nuclear bombs and missiles in America, including the centrepiece of his story a fire in a nuclear missile silo where workers battled to stop the fire detonating the warheads.
It is a great book, with there being something good on every page (following the Raymond Chandler edict of “put a diamond on every page”) – whether that be Fermi’s calculations about the possibility of the first nuclear explosion potentially going wrong and setting fire to every atom of oxygen in earth’s atmosphere (that would be a bad thing), the fact that in the early days of the Cold War whilst US media politicians and military spoke about how the US military stockpile of nukes could wipe Russia off the map they actually had just one functioning nuclear weapon (“for all the talk about the stockpile, there was no stock, and there was not even a pile”), the naming of the early computer system to plan nuclear conflict being called M.A.N.I.A.C, the British nuclear bunker to plan for life after the apocalypse having a pub called “The Rose and Crown” in it, and much more.
But the bit that struck me, and is applicable to this blog generally, is the battle that the US had over this dilemma, “Always/Never”. They wanted to make nuclear weapons that would ALWAYS detonate and work when they wanted them to, but would NEVER go off when they weren’t intended to. That means that they had to be reliable and ALWAYS detonate when fired, but had to be sturdy and strong enough to survive maintenance, fires, the planes they were in crashing or being shot down, even accidents with testing.
And that was a goal on paper, but the reality was that the show was being run by the military, and thus the “ALWAYS” part had priority. For them, it was more important that they knew that if the Russian planes or missiles went up, they could launch and hit their own targets and get the job done; than the risk that an accident might occur. Whilst the calculations on “NEVER” seemed pretty good – a one in ten million chance that any individual nuke would go off accidentally, when multiplied by the number that they ended up with, the risk ended up feeling pretty unpalatable. (And as Schlosser identifies, there ended up being hundreds of incidents where things went wrong with nukes, sometimes quite badly wrong)
Now, in child protection, we also run an “ALWAYS/NEVER” ideal. Children who are going to be seriously hurt or killed by their parents should ALWAYS be protected and kept safe, and children who ought to be at home with their parents should NEVER be removed. As Munro and others have identified, this ideal is never going to actually work 100% of the time in practice. The myth for a long time was that with more information, more assessment, more structure, more procedures, more rigour, we could get very very close to that 100% figure, but that’s only a myth.
At the moment, like the US military in the Fifties and Sixties, we are more focussed on the “ALWAYS” portion of the equation – we strive for ALWAYS/NEVER but the ALWAYS bit is more important. I can’t really think of a time when the fear of getting another child death has been higher, post Baby P, but as you can see, even with that heavy focus on child rescue, individual tragedies still occur. Looking at the Looked after Children statistics recently published by the Department for Education https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/244872/SFR36_2013.pdf in amongst the (imho wrongly triumphalist) boasting about the increase in number of adoptive placements found for children, is the incredible statistic that the numbers of children currently the subject of Placement Orders (the legal order which sanctions an adoptive placement being found for the child) has gone up by 95% since 2009. Ninety-five per cent.
Even against that backdrop, the Serious Case Reviews and child deaths continue to happen. Even when everyone is very heavily focussed on ALWAYS, the truth is that you can’t keep all children safe.
And of course, whilst a mistake in the ALWAYS part of the equation is easy to detect – the child dies, there is an inquest, a criminal trial, a serious case review – everyone knows that something went badly wrong; any mistake in the NEVER part of the equation is harder to pick up. You can tell if you took too much of a risk with a child, because something awful happens. But you can’t tell if you were far too cautious with a child, because that child doesn’t go home, the family is broken up and you never know whether that was the right call or not.
Our legal system is intended to be the check and balance on the NEVER part of the equation – we have laws and case law which makes it plain how important family preservation is, and a forensic process that gives parents free legal advice, the opportunity to present their own evidence and to test the evidence against them, with independent judges to make decisions, and an appeal process as a safeguard for those individual judgments getting it wrong.
All of that isn’t foolproof though. It would be hard to devise a foolproof system – I know that some of my regulars believe that the threshold for child protection intervention ought to be more like criminal offences, and that cases should be decided by juries not judges. That may or may not help, but we only have to look at criminal trials to realise that things go wrong with those – the wrong people do get convicted; and undoubtedly a criminal definition of threshold, a criminal standard of proof, a jury system would be moving much more towards the NEVER side of the equation. ( In our criminal justice system we accept the possibility that guilty people may go free as an acceptable price for ensuring that innocent people are not punished – and even then sometimes it still goes wrong and innocent people go to prison)
I don’t have any solutions – I think really my point is that there isn’t a solution that will deliver ALWAYS/NEVER in child protection – you’ll make mistakes on both sides of that equation, and lurching too much to either side produces more mistakes on the other. It is important to remember that you are trying to balance family preservation and child rescue, and that this is a difficult task and there’s no easy shortcut to getting it right, and that sometimes with all the best intentions, individual mistakes will happen and get past the system. Each of those individual mistakes is life-destroying for families and for children.