A major review of the deaths and serious injury of 45 children in Northern Ireland has found many could have been prevented with earlier intervention.
Queen’s University and the NSPCC have published a report which examined the handling of 24 harrowing child abuse cases by agencies over a five-year period.
The investigation — the first of its kind — found that agencies were sometimes “particularly poor” at addressing the impact of neglect on many of the children involved, and did not intervene early enough to prevent tragedy.
The review — called Translating Learning Into Action — was commissioned by the Department of Health and tasked to look at 24 case management reviews (CMR) carried out from 2003-2008.
Of the 24 cases reviewed, 18 involved the death of a child. Four of these children died after a physical or sexual assault, eight died by suicide or accident and six others died unexpectedly for which there was no cause established.
Among them were three children under the age of one, including a newborn baby who died as a result of abuse or neglect.
The research found that 75% of the children looked at were never on the child protection register.
Only four were on the register at the time of the incident. The report noted that only three of the children had never been previously known to children’s social services.
Of the children in contact with children’s social services at the time of the incident, 58% were in receipt of ongoing services.
Overall, the report’s authors say the rate of non-accidental child deaths continues to fall as a result of having a “strong child protection system”. But they acknowledge the findings highlight areas for improvement.
Dr Lisa Bunting from the NSPCC said: “There is always more to be done, and lessons that can be learnt, and we welcome this opportunity to effect change.”
Dr Bunting, however, highlighted that a “lack of sustained intervention with children and families was sometimes an issue”. “Although problems in the family had, in many cases, been evident for a number of years, agencies were sometimes particularly poor at addressing the impact of chronic neglect on children, and intervening at an early stage,” she said.
“We need to ensure that practitioners have access to a range of appropriate interventions and services which can prevent family problems from becoming entrenched.”
“The CMR report noted how early investigation of concerns in relation to neglect could have resulted in different outcomes, highlighting how a number of opportunities for multi-agency working and the provision of a support package of services were missed,” it said.
Five main points
The research examined 24 case reviews — undertaken when a child dies, including death by suicide, and abuse or neglect is known or suspected to be a factor in the child’s death.
- Four children died after a physical or sexual assault between 2003 and 2008.
- In total, 18 children from the 24 cases died as a result of abuse or neglect.
- Seven of the children who died were less than one-year-old at the time of their death.
- Children’s social services were involved with children in 19 (79%) of the cases.
- 75% of the children in the reports lived with their immediate birth family.
Danger as real now as during reign of Savile
Dr John Devaney from Queen’s University Belfast says the report’s findings should warn us against dismissing the Savile revelations as historical and that society must learn to listen to its children
The recent report by the London Metropolitan Police and the NSPCC into the known abuse by Jimmy Savile is depressing reading. The scale of the abuse raises questions about how any individual could have perpetrated this abuse for so long without anyone knowing — and yet the most depressing aspect is that at the time some children and adults did speak up but they weren’t listened to.
It would be easy to dismiss the Savile affair as historical and of little current relevance. However, every day in our society, police officers and social workers work with children who have suffered, or are suffering, serious abuse and neglect.
These are not invisible children —quite often family members, neighbours and other professionals tell us that they had been worried about the child for some time, but did not want to be seen as over-reacting or making the situation worse — one may wonder how anyone thought intervening to protect a child could make things worse.
The key message is that even though thousands of children are supported each year, a small number still die or are seriously injured from abuse and neglect.
The individual reports often state that the death or serious injury of the child could not have been predicted.
This may seem counterintuitive given the outcome. Regretfully this small number of children did not stand out from the thousands of children being supported every day of the year by social workers and other professionals in Northern Ireland for a whole range of reasons, most often not associated with physical abuse.
The reports highlight that too many children are living in households where they are exposed to difficult situations such as parental substance misuse, domestic violence, poor parenting, sexual abuse and lack of parental supervision.
This is often exacerbated by poverty and social deprivation, poor parental mental health, and services which work independently with adults about the difficulties in their lives, without sufficient consideration of the potential impact of adults’ difficulties on their caring responsibilities towards their own children.
The report also highlights the number of young people who die by suicide as a consequence of the stress associated with the accumulation of adversity over many years.
The report, though, does highlight that the number of children dying through illness, road accidents and abuse has fallen dramatically over the past 40 years.
The current systems and processes for keeping children safe work well, but only if children who need additional support and protection are identified quickly to professionals.
The report challenges politicians to ensure that professionals have the resources to get involved and support families at an earlier stage, and that services remain involved for longer periods of time to ensure that improvements in family situations are sustained.