DIANE Abbott was, as ever, very sure of herself.
Writing after the publication of the serious case review into the death of four-year-old Daniel Pelka, the MP spared not one of the professionals quick to claim that "lessons have been learned". But then, why would she?
Abbott's reaction was as common as it was compassionate. She had heard it all before. From Victoria Climbie to Peter Connelly ("Baby P"), with too many others besides, the tale has too often been repeated. Cruelties that should have been prevented, tragedies that should have been averted, each as a preface to ritualistic official remorse, each followed by the solemn promise that "the system" will improve.
Abbott could have observed that politicians have been as guilty as the managers she chose to deride. After such horrors, legislators swear to ensure there will be no "next time". Their laws set policy, after all; in theory, their oversight is the final guarantor of standards. Instead, the Labour MP for Hackney North preferred a familiar target.
That doesn't mean she was wrong. Anyone who hears of a child such as Daniel, who was tortured and murdered by his mother and her partner, is entitled to a straightforward question: Who let this happen?
These are trained, paid professionals. Unlike the rest of us, they are not entitled to the odd mistake in their working lives: the stakes are too high. They are certainly not entitled to preside over a system in which, according to the Pelka case review, the failure to communicate was absolute. Did X never once pause and think: "It is essential that I get the facts from Y and Z"? Apparently not.
But pause a second, nevertheless. What do we demand when we ask these angry, impatient questions? A system ensuring that no healthy child should ever die needlessly and in pain? A system that will spot and stop every last monstrous parent and hideous so-called carer?
Asked about the Pelka case at the end of July, Andrew Webb of the Association of Directors of Children's Services said bluntly that we were asking the impossible, that "we will never prevent all child deaths". Webb observed that between 50 and 70 children die at the hands of parents or carers each year. Only a small number of the fatalities are due to outright neglect, but the number is rising. And no system is ever perfect.
We could bear in mind, too, that when professional failure is exposed, every success is forgotten. Alert teachers, police, social workers, nurses and doctors are unquestionably keeping children from harm every day of the week. Any parent with a child who has been treated for bumps and bruises knows how vigilant the professionals can be. For most of the time, the imperfect system works.
The feeling lingers, nevertheless, that none of this is good enough when the fate of a Daniel Pelka or a Hamzah Khan comes to light. In the latter case, the evidence offered in court involves a four-year-old lying dead in his cot for two years, his corpse mummified but still showing signs he was desperately hungry. Yet again, a child had become invisible to the authorities and to society. No system is perfect, but for these children all systems failed utterly.
We pay professionals to do jobs that the rest of us wouldn't touch or couldn't manage. That is part of the bargain, but it also speaks to our hypocrisy. Someone has failed in a task that few of us could face, far less accomplish. Yet given that the professionals have accepted the responsibility and the wages, we are entitled to hold them to account.
But what about the rest of us? Too often in these hellish cases there is a cast of characters who are allowed to slip into the background. They have no legal responsibility, no assigned public role. They are just people - friends, neighbours, relatives, passers-by - and somehow they are exempt from all obligations. They are us, in other words, forever content to believe that a system exists, that it works. Until we are proved wrong.
"You don't like to get involved" - it might as well be a British motto. Time and again when children have suffered we hear how people suspected nothing. Daniel and Hamzah were hidden, metaphorically and in reality, but how often does a child die in the vicinity of neighbours or an extended family oblivious to the suffering? Let's settle for "unusually often".
It is one result, perhaps, of our habit of treating any system as an entity in its own right, with an existence independent of the people involved. We hear that "the system" failed, or that "the system" has been improved. The system, in turn, becomes a shield for the professionals who enraged Abbott and many others last week.
Daniel Pelka didn't die because of the system's flaws. He died because of two murderous adults - and because other adults failed to do their jobs. There should be no inhibition about saying so.
There is no point in someone complaining, then, when the rest of us, unqualified or ignorant, "sit in judgment". Who else is there? Who else should there be? If society at large is to shoulder its responsibilities towards children, reforms cannot be left to professionals alone. Too often they disqualify themselves, as Abbott laboured to make clear, thanks to self-interest. In that sense, "the system" protects itself.
Two contradictory statements can be made. First, you cannot hope to save every child as long as people such as those who killed Daniel Pelka exist. Sooner or later, their depravity is expressed. On the other hand, Daniel should never have died. No protection was provided for that child. So what truly are we asking of this vaunted yet flawed system?
Perhaps this: the absence of the hope of perfection is no excuse for a shambles. None of the professionals involved in the Pelka case were callous people. But for all the real difference they made, they might as well have had hearts of flint. That is why we sit in judgment. Those who were supposed to guard against neglect were neglectful.
The case review failed to conclude that individual professionals were to blame in Daniel's case. Legally, that is probably a fair and accurate judgment. In any human sense, it is a nonsense. "No-one" is no answer.
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