Alan Collins: No child should be left to ‘disappear’ into life of abuse

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THE Parole Board’s decision that Tracey Connelly should be released from prison will raise real concerns and justified anger. Her son Peter, otherwise known as Baby P, died in August 2007. He was 17 months old and had more than 50 injuries.

In 2009, Connelly was given a so-called “imprisonment for public protection” sentence, with a requirement that she should serve at least five years.

When released – with the date to be decided by the Home Secretary – she will be on licence for life. This means that if she re-offends she will be liable to be sent back to prison.

In one sense she has served her time and paid her dues. Yet many will ask whether five years is long enough for causing the death of a child.

When passing sentence, judges are constrained by the law. However the law as it stands is inadequate, failing to reflect how the public view these cases. It is now the job of Parliament to change it.

Sentencing powers should be increased to reflect the gravity of the offences, and with that the message is sent out that child abuse, however it manifests itself, will be met with the toughest of punishments. There must also be a far more vigorous investigatory process that does not inadvertently allow children to “disappear”.

It is astonishing that in 21st century Britain children still die through neglect and cruelty.

I struggle to find a simple or single answer, but the Baby P case and, more recently, that of four-year-old Hamzah Khan in Bradford, provide some clues – along with opportunities to learn from their tragic and arguably avoidable deaths.

Both boys died through the failings of their mothers. Hamzah through neglect having been allowed to starve to death in appalling conditions, Baby P as a result of being subjected to abuse by his mother, her partner and his brother.

Both mothers were undoubtedly inadequate in many ways. They did not have to allow their children to live the lives they
did. They made a choice and ultimate responsibility must
rest with them. Help was
available if they felt they could
not cope.

Crucially, however, both Peter and Hamzah were failed by the system. As a supposedly civilised and advanced country, we have a social welfare system that is meant to be there to help and protect from cradle to grave.

Yet these two boys came on to the system’s radar and then disappeared. They were effectively forgotten. This was not deliberate, but it appears to have possibly happened by default, and that is the problem.

Hamzah and Baby P are the latest in a line of cases where deaths are the end result of a system that does not quite work.

We are familiar with stories of doctors failing to spot broken bones, and social workers failing to act on visible signs of neglect, and we could be forgiven for our weariness and disgust.

Social workers have a tough job, as do hospital staff, but they, along with the police, are in the front line when it comes to child protection, and with this comes responsibilities. Those responsibilities now need to be enhanced – and extended – with mandatory reporting which
might minimise the risk of vulnerable children falling off 
the radar.

It would mean that anyone
who works with children would be obliged, by law, to report their concerns about a child which should then trigger a social services and police investigation.

Mandatory reporting laws are already in place in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, South Africa, Sweden, America and New Zealand – and those who fail in their duties are brought to account. But there is currently no legal requirement here.

There also needs to be follow-up in every case, because checking and being satisfied that all is well is not fool-proof – as these two cases have shown.

Child abusers can be devious and manipulative, and there is insufficient recognition at the moment that this is a difficult risk factor to counter.

What we all want to see is
that cases involving children
who may be at risk are thoroughly investigated and the children given the protection they
need.

Mandatory reporting is not the magic solution that will confine child abuse to the past, but it is a practical step that can help to give greater protection to vulnerable children.

If this was the law now, would Hamzah Khan and Peter Connelly still be alive?

We can never know for sure, but the failings in their cases demonstrate that the odds of such children “disappearing” would have been greatly reduced.

*Alan Collins is a partner at Pannone Solicitors and one of Britain’s top child abuse lawyers. He has acted on behalf of the victims of disgraced presenters Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall.