Savages, evil, hell boys, sadists – these are just some of the phrases that have been used to describe the two young brothers from Edlington, Doncaster, who were convicted last week of a horrific attack on two other children.
Anyone who reads the details of the assault can’t fail to be shocked by the brutality of the attack.
But this was not an act of “pure evil” or of entrenched “sadists” – but of two damaged young people who have clearly been badly failed by the system.
A quick glance at the stories of these brothers’ short lives so far offers a picture of poverty, neglect, exclusion from school and being taken into the care system.
These are all factors that we know increase the likelihood that young people will suffer mental health problems and get into trouble at an early age.
Edlington – where the attacks took place – is a deprived former pit village on the outskirts of Doncaster.
The boys who carried out the attack were both in the care of Doncaster’s troubled social services department.
Even before the attack the council had launched serious case reviews into the deaths of seven infants – all known to social services – in a five year period.
Like the recent assault, each one of these cases is a tragedy in its own right, but together they tell a deeper story – one of government neglect and cost cutting and political inertia.
And the Edlington case has exposed what social care workers have known for years – that “efficiency” cuts and under-funding have left many children and young people increasingly at risk of harm.
The two boys charged were known to agencies ranging from children’s services to the police and were recognised to be in need of care and supervision.
Their placement in foster care that was clearly inadequate to their needs helped to create the conditions for this violent attack.
Channel 4 News reported last week that the social worker who carried out the assessment on the boys had recommended that they be placed in secure accommodation – both had previous incidents of violence – as they may have posed a risk to others.
Many social workers across Britain are only too aware that cost, rather than need, influences many care decisions.
Some commentators, including Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey, have responded to the Edlington case by calling for children of “families that can’t be fixed” to be taken into care as babies.
This echoes the worst tabloid stereotypes of an “underclass” of “out of control” families who should have their children seized from them.
A Times newspaper columnist developed this theme last week with a nasty article titled, “Forcing vile parents to have their babies adopted will stop this evil.”
Children’s minister Ed Balls responded to Narey’s calls by saying that services should aim to support children at home with “tough intervention” programmes.
But the stark reality is that current services are failing both children in care and those living with their families.
Doncaster children’s services department was severely damaged by a “corporate restructure” in 2005, which saw staff with many years of experience being made redundant or choosing to leave the authority.
This placed huge pressure on over-burdened services and increased the workloads of those who remained.
The increased use of agency workers in children’s services nationally – in some areas as high as 75 percent of staff – gives the lie to the repeated claim that there is a national shortage of qualified staff. If agencies can recruit, why do local authorities struggle?
Confidential reports, leaked to the media earlier this year, showed that staff and managers in Doncaster council have raised many concerns about the increased risk of harm to vulnerable children and young people at the highest levels.
But they have seen their concerns disregarded.
These reports contributed to Doncaster’s former mayor Martin Winter taking the decision not to seek re-election this year.
But now we are faced with the threat of greater attacks on services and support to children.
The new right wing English Democrat mayor has stated his aim to cut council tax by 3 percent next year, on top of the cuts and efficiency savings of recent years.
And the government intervention team, sent in to address the crisis in Doncaster council, is now threatening to cut vital services such as the education welfare service and support to excluded pupils – all on the grounds of cost.
Senior managers in children’s services are now attempting to claim that workers must bear some of the responsibility for the failures to safeguard children.
So while workers have never had the power to determine what and how services are delivered, they are now expected to shoulder the blame!
We must reject this disgusting attempt to shift responsibility for the failure to protect young people onto workers and must fight to defend services for children and young people in Doncaster and elsewhere.
We should fight for services that are well funded, well staffed and treat children, families and workers with respect.
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