Has LBWF got a child safeguarding problem? Judge in recent case condemns council’s ‘overwhelming failure’, while three other cases give cause for concern

In recent weeks, Waltham Forest and London news outlets have reported the trial of a local mother and father, who stood accused of keeping their two children isolated at home for more than 14 years, thereby depriving them of schooling, access to medical care, recreation, and any kind of social life. 

The outcome was that the father admitted child cruelty and neglect, and was given a community order, while charges against the mother were dropped for reasons that have not been made public.

The evidence presented in court showed that several statutory agencies had performed less than satisfactorily, but the judge was particularly scathing of one, LBWF, the safeguarding authority. 

Social services staff had previously removed another of the couple’s children because of allegations of neglect, and in this case were shown to have missed a dozen opportunities to intervene. Even a direct plea from a doctor had failed to make much of an impression, with the referral never completed after ‘“discussion with a social worker”’.

 Little wonder that in her summing up, the judge pulled few punches:

‘“It is a tragedy, a complete tragedy…These children went completely under the radar. On the face of it there appears to have been an overwhelming failure by the local authority”’.

Subsequently, the Leader, Cllr. Clare Coghill, and the portfolio holder for children, young people and families, Cllr. Grace Williams, have been conspicuous by their silence, perhaps hoping that the death of Prince Philip quickly would bury the story. 

It’s been left to the Independent Chair of the Waltham Forest Safeguarding Children Board, David Peplow, to stick his head above the parapet, and advise, in time honoured fashion, that this was an ‘exceptional’ event, and ‘more robust processes’ have been put in place to prevent a repeat.

An ‘exceptional event’, Mr. Peplow reassures us.

But is he right?

In one sense, yes, because there has been nothing exactly comparable in recent memory.

But in another sense, no, because a search through the records shows that since 2018 LBWF social services staff have been involved in three other even more serious safeguarding cases, each revolving around the unexpected death of a child (‘Child D’, ‘Child C, and ‘Khalsa’).

What makes this particularly striking is that, as the subsequent official reports reveal, in each of these cases, the safeguarding provision was not without controversy.

One finding in all three reports is that key information was either incomplete, or not widely enough shared, as the following examples illustrate:

‘Child D’, Serious Case Review, February 2020

‘Although the allocated social worker can clearly recall a home visit and assessment, there is no record of the visit or the assessment’.

‘Finding 3. In Waltham Forest and Newham practitioners do not always record important information which results in significant information not being shared’.

‘Child C’, Serious Case Review, May 2020

‘There were also difficulties in communication between the authorities in Bournemouth and Waltham Forest, and there was an incomplete transfer of information between them’.

‘Despite the [LBWF] Housing Service holding information not known to any other agency, and also controlling resources that were an important component of the plan to protect Child C from future criminal exploitation, they were not involved in discussions about protecting Child C’.

‘Khalsa’, Child Safeguarding Practice Review, November 2020 

Some professionals who attended the child protection conference felt that there was a “confusion” about what the risks were for Khalsa and how this risk was managed by his parent’.

‘Finding 1. Systems communication between universal and acute medical services was not conducive to allowing practitioners to understand and contribute to the risk discussion. At times the right people did not have the right information at the right time’.

Against this background, it was inevitable that there would be missed opportunities for fruitful intervention.

A second striking finding in the reports is that professionals at the coalface sometimes were ill-prepared for the task before them, either because of a lack of knowledge, or because of an unwillingness to think outside the box.

The ‘Child D’ case is illustrative. The bare facts are recorded as follows:

‘The Mother of child D experienced domestic abuse prior to her pregnancy and had to flee from her abuser, the father of the child. Mother then lived in east London and was isolated with very limited support/friends, and no family. Mother has been living in Newham when she booked for her pregnancy and before Child D was born, she moved to Waltham Forest where she lived in a Refuge for women experiencing domestic abuse. When Child D was four months old and at the time of his death Child D was in the sole care of his Mother and living in temporary studio accommodation in Hackney, sourced by London Borough Waltham Forest Housing. The coroner gave the cause of death as “Unexplained”’.

However, turning to the Serious Case Review adds considerably to the sense of discomfort. For it notes that, at the time of her move to temporary accommodation, the mother of ‘Child D’ was not provided with a cot ‘due to incorrect information regarding the risk of Sudden Unexplained death in Infancy’ [sic]; and when she later revealed that she had ‘historical drinking difficulties’, no-one wanted to grasp the nettle, meaning that:

‘There was no questioning of how someone who had an addiction or problematic drinking pattern was able to suddenly end when she became pregnant. There was not discussion about the reason in the first place for the drinking, which may have been part of her coping strategy to deal with her experiences of abuse. There is no record of practitioners being curious about Mother’s ability to suddenly stop drinking and/or what she was using know as a coping strategy’.

In conclusion, it almost goes without saying that social services staff often have unusually taxing jobs; avoidable mistakes will vary in the seriousness of their consequences; human problems on occasion may be intractable; and hindsight is a wonderful thing.

It also must be pointed out that in early 2019 an OFSTED inspection found that ‘Services for children in Waltham Forest are good and have significantly improved since the last inspection in 2015’.

However, that said, the judge in the recent trial stated that the ‘“life chances”’ of the two children kept isolated at home were ‘“severely limited by what has happened”’, and they were going to ‘“carry the consequences of those formative years throughout the rest of their lives”’; while the three child deaths that have been discussed speak for themselves.  

So it is surely right that Cllrs. Coghill and Williams now come out of hiding and provide reassurance beyond platitudes. Above all, the public needs to be confident that child safeguarding procedures in Waltham Forest are properly resourced, and that those local social services staff who work in the field are not being asked to carry impossible burdens.

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