Simon Parke: Vulnerable as a baby

17 December 2008

IT IS GOOD to remember a child at Christmas. But which one? And what do we do with Herod?

Recent painful news stories have again put children in the news spot­light. The treatment of Baby P and Shannon Matthews has unloosed outrage and self-righteousness. The response of the perpetrators does not help, of course. We wish to see writhing, repentance, and shame — not cold stares, from dead eyes.

Neither are we helped by the strong arm of the law as it takes them into custody: heads covered, they are driven away, and safely housed beyond our angry reach. What are we to do? The lynch mob in the human psyche likes to have a kill.

Meanwhile, a female social worker in the north of England is spat on in the supermarket. It was during the height of media interest in the Baby P story, and clearly the woman had no involvement in the case. She lived 300 miles away from the child, and visited London only once a year to see a West End show. But, when you cannot get to Herod, you have to find a substitute. And there she was — a social worker, and very reachable, as she unloaded her items at the till.

We are not surprised. After the abuse of the child comes the abuse of the social worker. The nature of the job means the only press is bad press — and this can destroy the spirit. Their heroics must remain confidential, just as their failures must be two-inch headlines.

But do they also need protecting from themselves? Two significant, if perhaps obvious, thresholds have been noted in London boroughs. The first is this: boroughs that experience the most child-protection referrals — those involving sexual, physical, or emotional abuse or neglect — employ a higher “danger threshold” than other boroughs. So a child who might receive instant protection in one borough will not necessarily receive it in another; we do in some measure have “postcode child pro­tection” these days.

The second significant threshold is equally telling: social workers who have worked too long in child pro­tection become immune. As one borough in London has realised, what a social worker might regard as unacceptable in his or her early days in the job, he or she might feel less strongly about two years down the line.

We are all brutalised by our cir­cum­stances — but there can be few who face such challenges as those in child protection. There is no happy day at work; and only the most remarkable of people could stay open to such daily awfulness.

This Christmas, whichever chil­dren hold our gaze, we will feel their vulnerability. Perhaps there will even be a strange recognition — we were so fragile once ourselves. We will not blame any Herod; for what is evil but ignorance unleashed? But we will not collude with him, either; for only truth will set our children free.

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