Of all the comments made in the last few days about the case of ‘Baby P’, I think Mike Power, who’s married to a social worker, has come closest to hitting the nail squarely on the head:
The real point here, as I have stated before, is that there simply is no story. This case is a little more horrific than usual (although there have been plenty of nasty deaths since Climbie that have never been reported beyond a short piece in the local paper) and it happened in ‘loony left’ Haringey. Beyond that there is little to distinguish it from many other child killings that happen (on average once every 10 days). It’s a moral panic + political opportunism + classic tabloid tub thumping.
Having taken the time to read through the executive summary of the serious case review conducted by Haringey Council, which it published on the day that the verdict in the trial of Baby P’s killers, perhaps the most striking thing about this case is just how mundane the events leading up to the child’s death seem but for the final few days of his life, when the injuries that were to prove fatal appear to have been inflicted.
From the mother’s first contact with Haringey Social Services in December 2006 right through to Baby P’s death in August 2007 there appears to have been few, if any, of the classic signs that serious abuse may have been taking place within the family home. The mother appears to have willingly cooperated with both the social workers and health workers throughout and although the SCR notes two incidents where the child was presented for medical treatment with injuries that raised suspicions about the possibility of abuse and/or neglect, both of which were investigated by the police but gave rise to an inconclusive outcome, there seems to have been little or nothing until the final two weeks of Baby P’s life which would indicate that what social workers were dealing with was anything other than a run of the mill case of a newly single parent struggling to cope on her own with the youngest of her four children.
That’s the point that seems to have been entirely overlooked in the media feeding frenzy following last week’s verdict – up until a couple of weeks before Baby P’s death there was nothing in the case, whatsoever, to distinguish it from from any of the thousands of relatively minor cases of abuse and neglect that social workers across the UK deal with every day, the kind of cases that, as often as not, are successfully managed by providing the parent with additional support without ever reaching the point at which the child needs to be taken into care.
That, together with the inability of the police to build a strong enough case to prosecute on the two occasions that the child exhibiting injuries and signs of neglect that did raise suspicions of abuse, seems to explain why, a little under two weeks before the child died of an horrific set of injuries, the Council’s legal team advised its Childrens’ Services department that there was insufficient evidence to obtain a care order.
As to exactly what happened during the final two weeks of Baby P’s life, the truth seems to be elusive, and all the more so for the media, politicians and just about everyone else overlooking what’s right in front of them in the content of Haringey’s Serious Case Review. Even without sight of a transcript of the trial proceedings, what we can infer from the fact that the police failed to secure a murder or manslaughter conviction in this case and had to rely, instead, on obtaining convictions for the offence of causing or allowing the death of a child, is that no conclusive account of the circumstances leading to Baby P’s death was put before the court. Whether this was because the three individuals who were tried and convicted gave entirely conflicting accounts or simply refused to implicate each other in the child’s death is unclear, primarily because in their unseemly haste to point the finger at social workers and seek out a scapegoat, there appears to have been little or no information published as to the proceedings of the trial.
As a result, what has appearing routinely in the media is the suggestion that Baby P was subjected to a serious and sustained level of abuse over a period of months prior to his death – the Daily Telegraph headed up one its articles with the claim that
“Baby P was used “as a punchbag” during eight months of abuse”
while The Times upped the ante by claiming that Baby P after…
“17 months enduring abuse of an almost unimaginable cruelty…”
That last statement will surely be news to the child’s natural father, who lived in the family home for the first three of those 17 months according to The Times – or maybe its five to six months, which is what it states in Haringey’s serious case review, which also points to ‘limited efforts made by professionals to involve child A’s father in the early period of intervention’ as one of the shortcoming’s identified, with hindsight, in their own handling of the case.
The fact of the matter is that there is no evidence of any serious abuse approaching the scale of the injuries that the child suffered immediately before he died prior to the last two to three weeks of his life and much of the media have been trying to present as evidence of abuse and/or neglect is, for any parent, more than a little bit unconvincing as here, from the same Times article which made the unsubstantiated 17 months of abuse claim:
As he grew too old for milk and jars of baby food, Baby P scavenged bits of broken biscuits from older children and was even seen eating dirt in the garden.
One has to wonder whether or not the author of this particular article, Adam Fresco, has children of his own as most parents will be well aware that there’s nothing necessarily unusual in either behaviour. It would actually be more unusual for a toddler to see a another child with a biscuit and not ask for part of it and all young children go through a stage of putting anything and everything in their mouth as part of their development. Seriously, my oldest, who’s now 16, still suffers unmercifully at family get-togethers on account of the story of how, as a toddler, we only narrowly prevented him from eating a slug he’d found in the background.
Other elements of the evidence apparently presented to the court, and reported by The Times see similarly ambiguous. We’re told, for example, that:
The court heard that while his mother gossiped with friends in online chat rooms, her boyfriend took to beating the boy, swinging him around by the neck or legs and pinching him.
And they were told this by whom and what exactly constitutes a ‘beating’ in this context. Only on two occasions between December 2006 and June 2007 did the child receive injuries serious enough to require medical treatment and despite the suspicions that these injuries were not accidental, as the mother claimed, the police failed to find sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution and appear not to have even identified that the had moved into the family home. As for swinging the child round ‘by the neck or legs’ is that really as damning a statement as it appears to have been made to sound, given that swinging babies and toddlers around in a playful manner is a pretty common thing for a parent to do, and as pinching the child, again its not that uncommon, I’m afraid, for a parent to pinch a toddler in response to the toddler pinching them – parents will very often respond to a child hitting or pinching them in a tit-for-tat fashion, a revelation which, I’m sure, will horrify those who consider there there are no circumstances in which the use of physical punishment on a child can be justified but which, nevertheless, are a common enough element of ‘traditional’ parenting not to seem to far out of the ordinary unless presented in the context of a case, like this one, where much more serious abuse has taken place.
To add to that we’re informed that the stepfather allegedly:
…forced Baby P to follow commands like a dog. At the click of a finger he would have to sit with his head bent between his legs; 20 minutes later a second click would be the signal that he could sit upright again.
Again, that sounds quite damning in the context of a case such as this one, particularly in light of the reference to the child following the stepfather’s commands ‘like a dog’, but in terms of the child’s actions in response to these alleged ‘commands’ does making a child sit down with his head bowed for a short-ish period of time sound that dissimilar a practice to the use of the ‘naughty step’ which seems to be much favoured by TV child care ‘experts’ as a alternative to physical chastisement.
At least some of apparently observed behaviour of the boyfriend appears abusive only in the context of a case in which, we know, the tragic outcome and yet, outside this context, would appear to fairly standard elements of normal parenting and, given the adversarial nature of the criminal proceedings in the UK, that does raise questions as to whether and to what extent at least some of the actions attributed to the boyfriend may have been non-abusive but ambiguous enough to be worth putting forward with the suggestion that they be interpreted in the worst possible light in order to buttress the prosecution case.
While there is no doubt, whatsoever, that the three individuals convicted of causing or allowing Baby P’s death are guilty of the offence for which they were charged, if one steps back from the media coverage and considers some of what is being reported in a cool and dispassionate manner then there seem to be enough ambiguities and inconsistencies here to suggest that the consensually agreed account of Baby P’s last few months that the media and a fair few politicians have bought into, wholesale, may not be the only possible interpretation of the circumstances leading to the child’s death and, in particular, there is an alternative scenario here which, while it has no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the trial, is of considerable importance to the related events that have taken place since its conclusion.
Despite the media’s claims that Baby P was subjected to long-term and systematic abuse, what Haringey Council’s serious case review seems to indicate is that it was only during the last two to three weeks of Baby P’s life, a period which coincides with one of the three convicted parties, Jason Owen, moving into the household with his three children and his 15 year old girlfriend, that there was a sudden and dramatic escalation in the degree of abuse to which Baby P was subjected. From there having been two previous incidents in which the child suffered, in the first instance (December 2006), a minor head injury and bruising and on the second occasion, a lump on the side of his face and a few scratches and bruises, which his mother attributed to the child hitting his head on a fireplace after being pushed over by another child (June 2007), Baby P was subjected to a torrent of abuse in those final two weeks which left him with…
Eight broken ribs and a broken back, with another area of bleeding around the spine at neck level.
Numerous bruises, cuts and abrasions, including a deep tear to his left ear lobe, which had been pulled away from his head.
Severe lacerations to the top of his head, including a large gouge which could have been caused by a dog bite.
Blackened finger- and toenails, with several nails missing; the middle finger of his right hand was without a nail and its tip was also missing, as if it had been sliced off.
A tear to his fraenulum, the strip of skin between the middle of the upper lip and the gum, which had partially healed.
One of his front teeth had also been knocked out and was found in his colon. He had swallowed it.
While everyone else seems to be running around searching for some kind of failure in the system to justify their demands for a pound and half of flesh and ritual mounting of several social workers’ heads on spikes over Westminster Bridge, no one seems to have noticed that during the six months in which its thought the mother’s allegedly sadistic boyfriend was living in the house with Baby P, the worst injuries that the child appears to have exhibited were a few scratches and a lump on the side of his head and yet within three weeks of the boyfriend’s brother shipping up while on the run from his wife, with three kids and an underage girlfriend in tow, the child is battered to death.
Circumstantially, at least, that sounds more than a little bit suspect, particularly when, as a typically prurient article in yesterday’s News of the World, points out, the main prosecution witness who fingered the boyfriend as the actual abuser was the 15 year old girlfriend of Jason Owen – or rather of Jason Barker who was not only the lodger, as has been widely reported, but also the brother of the Baby P’s ‘stepfather’.
Now, does that additional piece of information not suggest that the plot is thickening somewhat, particularly when you add to the mix the information on Owen/Barker provided, here, by the Daily Telegraph:
He moved into the house in Haringey in June last year with his 15-year-old girlfriend because there were people “after him” in South London, the court heard.
He had split from his family after sex and abuse allegations. The court also heard allegations – which he denied – that he had made threatening phone calls to his sister.
Knowing the involvement of social services, Owen made sure he was not there when workers visited.
After the death of the child in August, he helped to dispose of the bedsheets and Babygro by dumping them in the canal.
Owen then went on the run from police and hid for nearly two weeks in Epping Forest. He was arrested on August 15 and blamed the step-father for the injuries in police interviews.
At first he was accused of allowing the death of a child, but in November he was charged with murder. He was later found guilty of causing or allowing the death of a child at the Old Bailey.
Because of the lack of direct evidence against him, Owen was given conditional bail while awaiting trial. But this was changed halfway through the case after police received information that Owen was making an application for a passport. He was arrested and remained in custody for the rest of the trial.
So, even with a lack of direct evidence against him and with his 15 year old girlfriend putting up testimony which identified his brother as having been solely responsible for Baby P’s death, the police still thought that Owen was good for a murder charge… why might they have thought that I wonder?
The mother’s boyfriend was described by witnesses as “simple” and incapable of writing proper text messages. Police believe he was “sadistic” and fascinated by pain. He was said to have tortured guinea pigs as a child and tormented frogs by breaking their legs. He was a keen collector of Nazi memorabilia. Police found a number of knives in the house, along with a swastika.
One witness told the court that he was shy and easily dominated. Baby P’s mother left him to do the housework and look after the baby. He was blamed by lodger Jason Owen for the abuse. Owen claimed that he sometimes went to check on the baby after hearing him cry and found the boyfriend in the room denying anything was wrong.
So the boyfriend is, according to several witnesses, ‘simple’ and, according to one in particular, also shy, easily dominated even though he has an apparent history of sadistic behaviour as a child… and I do wonder quite where the evidence of his childhood behaviour. Surely not his brother and co-accused, Jason Owen/Barker.
And does that not sound at odds with the claim, made by Owen/Barker’s 15 year old girlfriend that the boyfriend was:
a domineering control-freak, who moved in when Baby P was three months, banned everyone from going into the dingy room or even changing P’s dirty nappy.
Not to mention that…
His [Baby P’s] mother even had to ask permission to FEED him. But the witness said: “The mum ignored all the kids and let them do what they wanted.
“She was scared of her partner though. We all were. Day after day I heard screaming coming from Baby P’s cot. But I didn’t dare go in there. His nappy went unchanged for so long his skin just rotted away. His bottom was red raw, blistered and covered in sores.”
That’s doesn’t sound like someone who’s shy and easily dominated, does it?
Let’s just reiterate one point here, this entire picture of the boyfriend/stepfather as a domineering control freak whose banned everyone from the child’s room and whose permission the mother allegedly required just to give the kid a meal comes from the 15 year old girlfriend of his brother/lodger who moved into the household at the same time as her boyfriend, all of which appears to coicide with an dramatic escalation in the degree of abuse visited on Baby P.
So this is, of course, a perfectly reliable picture of what went on in that house during the final few week’s of Baby P’s life, isn’t it?
Well, obviously, it isn’t – or at least the jury in this case didn’t seem to think so – if they had then the boyfriend would likely have been have been convicted of at least manslaughter, if not murder, assuming that this ‘witnesses’ testimony matches the story given to the News of the World.
You might wonder why any of this is relevant, given that the mother, her boyfriend and the lodger/boyfriend’s brother were all convicted and are all looking at a long stint in prision, and almost certainly in the secure wing reserved, normally, for serious sex offenders who would otherwise be subjected to regular attacks by other prisoners.
Well, the relevance of these apparent inconsistencies in the sorry tale of Baby P’s death isn’t to the case itself but to events that followed and, in particular, to the ongoing media witchhunt against Haringey Council and its Children’s Services department, because while the media’s preferred account of the circumstances leading to Baby P’s death, in which the child was seemingly systematically abused in a serious manner for several months before he died of his injuries, supports the idea that systematic failures in Haringey’s Child Protection services may have played a part in the events leading to the child’s death, the alternative account, in which the abuse the child was subjected to massively escalated during the final couple of weeks of his life following the introduction of a new, and to Haringey Council, unknown element into the household – Jason Owen/Barker – does not. In the latter scenario, while there was the one obvious and extremely serious failing, that of the community paediatrician who saw the child a couple of days before he died and who failed to spot his injuries – the scenario otherwise suggests only that social workers’ assigned to the case made an incorrect judgement call based on incomplete and ambiguous information about the child’s circumstances and the composition of the household in which he was living and this, for the most part, because the mother, her boyfriend and, eventually, his brother, deliberately concealed that information from social workers.
It’s also worth pointing out here, as this is rarely if even made clear by the media, but of the much quoted sixty occasions that the family had contact with health and social care workers in the 8 months from December 2006 up until the child’s death in August 2007, only 18 of those contacts were actually with social workers, a little less than half the number of contacts with health staff (37, including three visits to the family home), and the family (minus the boyfriend one assumes) were also seen five times at home by staff from the Family Welfare Association, which is now called ‘Family Action’ and there were another eight occasions that the child’s mother took her son to see health professionals including the two occasions on which the child’s injuries raised suspicions of abuse.
So how come the press and politicians are busily trying to kick the hell out social workers when they account for less than a third of the contact between the family and health and social care workers over the entire period and when – if you actually bother to read things properly and think about the many inconsistent elements that are apparent in this case – there evidence provides an equally plausible scenario which accounts more than adequately for the events leading to Baby P’s death but without relying on systematic failures and incompetence to explain the role of a range of health and social care professionals in proceedings.
That scenario, which isn’t being put forward by the media because it doesn;t lend itself anything like so well to the ritual scapegoating of Haringey Council and its child protection staff, is as plain as day if you only look at the evidence which suggests that far from Baby P having been subjected to systematic abuse for a lengthy period of time before his tragic death, abuse that the system failed to identify and act upon, what actually happened was that:
A. Baby P was subjected to low level abuse and neglect by his mother and stepfather of a kind that was sufficent to raise suspicions amongst police and social workers but not to provide the evidence and legal grounds necessary for the council to obtain a care order, as its legal advisors indicated on 25th July 2007, and…
B. There was a sudden, unexpected and ultimately fatal escalation in the degree of abuse visited on the child by one of more of the adults living in his household, the presence of two of whom (the mother’s boyfriend and his brother, the supposed lodger) was not known to the authorities until after the child’s death.
C. Without social workers being aware of the presence of these two individuals in the household, there was no way that the death of Baby P could have been prevented, given that two police investigations into what appeared to be physicial abuse of the child failed to turn up sufficient evidence either for a prosecution or for care proceedings.
As to whether or not the failure of the community paediatrician to indentify Baby P’s injuries when the child was seen a couple of days before he died made any difference to the outcome of this case, the fact is that we’ll never know. Maybe, medical intervention at that point could have saved the child’s life… and maybe the injuries might have proved too severe even though the child took another couple of days to die.
The sudden appearance of jason Owen/Barker in the household just prior to the serious escalation in the degree of abuse experienced by Baby P is too much of a coincidence not to be taken into account, for all that the police could present no evidence of his direct involvement in the child’s death.
If, as one witness at the trial suggested, the mother’s boyfriend is, notwithstanding his physical size and apparent history of childhood sadism against animals, not only of low intelligence but also shy and easily dominated – and a psychiatric assessment should allow the veracity of that particular piece of testimony to be evaluated – then there are more than enough well-documented cases of ‘George and Lennie’ scenarios within the field of forensic criminal psychology to support the contention that its may well only have been at the point that Owen/Barker moved into the household, without the knowledge of any of the authorities, that the risk to Baby P’s well-being escalated to an unacceptable level, one which would only have been apparent to those working with the family has they been aware that the mother was not, as they thought, living on her own with her four children.
From a careful reading of both the executive summary of Haringey Council’s Serious Case Review and a range of media coverage of the case, there is at least enough evidence to support the scenario I’ve set out above as there is the one the media have been relentlessly pushing in the hope of claiming the scalps they’ve been demanding since the end of the trial, particularly as it does seem as if most of the evidence which paints the picture of the mother’s boyfriend as a sadistic abuser appears to rely on the testimony of his brother and his 15 year old girlfriend, testimony which has to be considered to be just a little suspect given that both have an obvious vested interest in blaming someone else for events which took place when both were living in the same household.
There is, as a barrister might say in the course of summing up a case, reasonable doubt as to the accuracy of the version of events leading up to the death of Baby P that the media have been pushing extensively since the end of the trial and the doubts that this alternate scenario raises are pivotal to the issues of official responsibility and culpability that have dominated the media coverage to the almost total exclusive of any reflection on the fact that the ultimate responsibility for Baby P’s death lies in the hands of the individuals who were, last week, convicted of causing or allowing his death; his mother, her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s brother.
Aside from the failure of the community paediatrician to pick up that the child was seriously injured during the developmental assessment which took place only two days before the child died, for which the paediatrician has already been disciplined, perhaps the only thing I can find any clear fault in, as regards Haringey Council is the rather ill-judged and graceless public statement given by Sharon Shoesmith following the trial – and even then I would be prepared to entertain a plea of ‘lawyered’ in mitigation if it were to be shown that her failure to offer and apology and the generally self-exculpatory tone she adopted, on behalf of the council, stemed in part from legal advice intended to avoid making any statements that could be construed as an admission of liability.
The media is, of course, the media and one can hardly be surprised that they’ve responded to this case as they invariably do, with the usual heady mix of cloying sentimentality and nauseating hypocrisy and the demand, of course, that someone at the council be given up to them as a ritual sacrifice.
So, perhaps you’ll forgive me if I admit to – as usual – being least impressed by the caperings of our elected representatives who one might have hoped would at least have questioned why the outcome of Haringey’s Serious Case Review is so clearly at odds with the media’s version of events before they started trying to ride on the medias’ coat-tails and join the search for a scapegoat.
Yes, cases such as this one do raise questions of responsibility and accountability but before demanding that anyone should done the hair shirt submit themselves for ritual humilation in the court of public opinion, should politicians not, at least, make some effort to establish that those they criticise and castigate actually have something to be held responsible/accountable for, especially in a case where there are a still a considerable number of doubts and unknowns not least of which being the exact circumstance that led to Baby P’s death.