WHEN you see stories about children who have been beaten or starved to death, what is your first instinct? Is it to devour every harrowing word, or is it to hurriedly turn to another page of the newspaper or flick to a different TV channel?
My own response is invariably the latter. And it is entirely the wrong one.
Here’s why. If we continue to look away because we find the details of the deaths of children such as Hamzah Khan – the Bradford toddler whose mummified remains were found at his filth-ridden home in Bradford – too appalling to bear, we are simply ensuring that such tragedies can be repeated.
We are essentially letting those responsible off the hook. I’m not talking about the parents whose wickedness condemned their children to an early grave, but those who are meant to be looking out for them.
You might think that after so many recent cases of children dying in such terrible circumstances we would be almost desensitised to it. Then you catch the snatches of detail and one’s mind boggles at the wretchedness of it all.
By the time of his death at four-and-a-half, Hamzah was so malnourished he fitted into a babygrow worn by a six-month-old. As he lay dying in his dirty cot, surrounded by abject squalor, his mother Amanda Hutton swigged vodka.
Her actions were truly despicable, but they are not the only aspect of this distressing case that should incense us all.
Instead, it is the consistent and inexcusable failure of those whose sole professional purpose is to do everything humanly possible to ensure such atrocities do not happen.
Hamzah was last seen by a health professional when he was just two weeks old. From that point on, the health authorities admit they knew nothing about him. As a paediatrician told a doubtless disbelieving jury: “It’s a blank page.”
Hamzah and his mother were eventually made the subject of “multi-agency meetings” amid concerns about his welfare, but still there was no decisive intervention.
So how did Hutton outfox the social workers and other agencies whose job it is to safeguard such vulnerable children? She simply refused to answer the door or claimed Hamzah had gone to live with a relative.
No doubt we will once again be treated to the same tired old soundbites that have lost their impact because of their misuse. The authorities will tell us that “lessons will be learned”.
No doubt there will be a serious case review that results in a string of impressive-sounding recommendations and warnings that it must never happen again. Then it will happen all over again.
Baby P was meant to be the watershed moment. Following the conviction in 2009 of Peter’s mother Tracey Connelly, her boyfriend Steven Barker and his brother Jason Owen, three inquiries and a nationwide review of social service care were launched.
All very impressive, but we had been here before. The death of Victoria Climbie, tortured and murdered by her guardians nine years earlier, had triggered a public inquiry and brought major changes in policy in England.
The only trouble was that they didn’t stop it happening again. What’s more, both Victoria and Peter died in Haringey. So they didn’t even stop it happening in the same area of London, involving the same dismal children’s services department.
Last month, the heartbreaking final months in the life of schoolboy Daniel Pelka were laid bare. The four-year-old was starved and beaten for months before he died in March 2012 in a cold, locked bedroom in Coventry.
Daniel saw a doctor in hospital for a broken arm, arrived at school with bruises and facial injuries and was seen scavenging for food. A teaching assistant described him as a “bag of bones”.
Yet a serious case review (yes, one of those again) found he was “invisible” to those in authority who were fobbed off by his mother and her boyfriend. The review said “critical lessons” must be “translated into action”. Where have we heard that one before?
Meanwhile, as the jury in Bradford were convicting Amanda Hutton of manslaughter yesterday, we were learning the full, agonising extent of another failure to protect a child who perished at the hands of a parent.
Two-year-old Keanu Williams was found in Birmingham with 37 injuries including a fractured skull and torn abdomen. Once again, social care workers, the police and health professionals had “collectively failed to prevent Keanu’s death”.
Back in Coventry, council leader Ann Lucas is calling for the Government to introduce Daniel’s Law, a campaign which would make reporting of child abuse mandatory – something Ministers have so far ruled out.
Surely it’s now time they reconsidered. It’s not hard to see when a child is heavily bruised or suspiciously thin. We’re not talking about instituting a witch hunt, but we need to start asking the reasonable questions that will uncover abuse and neglect before it’s too late.
While the burden of responsibility for saving vulnerable youngsters like Hamzah Khan must always be on those who are paid to safeguard such children, we all have a role to play.
And if we – as relatives, neighbours or just ordinary members of the public – see something that concerns us but don’t speak up, then are we not ultimately just as guilty as those agencies and individuals who keep failing the very children whose lives they are meant to be fighting for?