The death of Baby Peter, the infant who died from appalling abuse despite having his name on the child protection register and being seen by numerous professionals, has caused an outcry in Britain. But the responses have been equally worrying and, as they have implications for adoption and fostering, merit attention.
I have no special knowledge of what happened but I found the ill-considered and contradictory nature of the accompanying discussion alarming: a grotesque mixture of the probable, possible and improbable, and an indictment of the inadequate appreciation of the complexity of social problems.
Initially, the Government seemed taken by surprise, despite knowledge of the impending scandal, but acted swiftly both locally and nationally. This uncertainty was manifest in the varied estimates of the number of similar cases occurring annually. The first figures were based on the 100 or so serious case reviews conducted each year, although a quarter of these reports concern serious injury and not death. OFSTED then came up with a higher figure, nearer 150, with the NSPCC trumping that with something even higher. Eventually, Lord Laming, in presenting his report, reduced it to 55. If it did not have such a deleterious effect on children's well-being, not least by chasing able practitioners into more respected and comfortable lines of work, one could marvel at the irony of this situation. We had one group of professionals--mostly employed by central government--with wildly varying judgements criticising the lack of perspicacity of another group--mostly employed by local government.
Others were quick to join in, many using the tragedy to bolster their particular cause. 'It reflects our broken society', said one politician. 'Nay, but broken families perhaps', retorted another. 'Baby Peter would have become an offender', foretold one charity manager. 'Policies are too pro-family', opined another. 'More children should be in care', concluded a Parliamentary Committee, unexpectedly supporting the use of more residential care. 'Nonsense', said a broadsheet newspaper, 'Care is a fate worse than death.' Meanwhile, the popular press demanded the blood of the professionals involved, despite having been recently duped itself by someone seeking financial gain from a fabricated abduction.
The problem is that the evidence does not fit with the easy answers that discussants were seeking. The three major studies of serious case reviews in England show that...