Conservative leader David Cameron seized on the case of the two young Doncaster brothers who beat and tortured two other boys as another example of Britain’s “broken society”.
The background of the brothers, then aged 10 and 11, has been much reported. They had a “toxic family life,” as a defence lawyer put it, the ingredients of which were a brutal father, a drug-dependent mother and a regime of “routine aggression, violence and chaos”.
Sizeable fragments of Mr Cameron’s broken society land regularly in social workers’ caseloads
A key question facing the serious case review, a summary of which was published by Doncaster MBC on 22 January, was why social workers and their colleagues in other agencies had not intervened long before the brothers committed their crimes.
They had known about the domestic violence since 1995, one or other of the seven sons had presented with injuries and evidence of emotional and physical neglect on several occasions, and the two brothers had shown a “very serious and escalating pattern of violent behaviour” in education and in their community.
By late 2008, the family’s problems had become “entrenched and extreme”.
Sizeable fragments of Mr Cameron’s broken society land regularly in social workers’ caseloads and the sad fact confronting all children’s professionals is that child neglect is nothing unusual. According to the charity Action for Children, studies suggest that up to 10% of children experience neglect and it is the most common category of abuse in child protection plans, accounting for 45% of cases.
High staff turnover, inadequate supervision and disconnected local agencies make it harder to see what is happening in families over time
Social workers have sometimes downplayed the importance of neglect compared with sexual and physical abuse, which are more easily diagnosed as “acute” episodes calling for an immediate response.
But it is now better understood that the pressures associated with neglect in a family can slowly build up and erupt into something worse.
In his report commissioned by the government after the death of Baby Peter in Haringey, Lord Laming spoke of the need for early intervention “averting escalation to the point at which families are in crisis.”
Child protection plans should have clear objectives, he said, with realistic timescales for action to “ensure a child is not subjected to long-term neglect”.
David Berridge, professor of child and family welfare at the University of Bristol, says that practitioners should have more training to recognise the symptoms of gradual decline in a neglectful family. “Neglect is now a major registration category for child protection plans. Partly because we understand more about physical and sexual abuse so that those numbers have fallen,” he says.
“But it’s also because we’ve begun to understand that issues of neglect often underpin other harmful behaviours and that therefore they must be addressed,” he adds.
High staff turnover, inadequate supervision and disconnected local agencies make it harder to see what is happening in families over time, which is vital if concerns about continuous neglect are to trigger a tougher response.
Another impediment is the care system, which could balloon if local authorities got tougher but is costly in a time of spending cuts and appears to achieve poor outcomes for children.
And what about underlying causes? Child neglect is often correlated with poverty, domestic violence and substance misuse.
Prof Berridge regrets the fact that social workers give less attention to poverty than they did 20 years ago.
“It’s not always in social workers’ capacity to cure poverty by themselves, but they could make better use of specialist agencies in things like housing support, consumer protection and welfare rights,” he says.
If we’re going to tackle entrenched patterns of behaviour, we’ve got to invest an awful lot more in narrowing the gap between rich and poor
Marion Davis, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services
Given the scale of child neglect, children’s departments will have to look harder for partners both to identify and eradicate it. In Doncaster, for example, 31 opportunities to intervene were missed.
Marion Davis, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, lists the many services - domestic violence, mental health, benefits and so on - that are well placed to spot signs that adults may be neglecting children. But, like Prof Berridge, she doubts whether this will be enough.
“If we’re going to tackle entrenched patterns of behaviour, we’ve got to invest an awful lot more in narrowing the gap between rich and poor,” she says.
“We have a very unequal society and I would rather tackle the inequalities than expand the care system to take more children into care.”
Mark Ivory, social care writer and commentator