Empathy, not policies, to help children at risk

10th July 2009 at 01:00

Who is doing the weighty thinking on child protection in Scotland? Certainly not the local authorities, too many of which have received very damning HMIE reports on theirs. The TESS was right to give prominence to the Education Secretary's review of guidance in this area (June 26).

Apparently, the recent follow-up report by the inspectorate on Aberdeen's child protection services concluded that the service had been successful in laying effective foundations for improvements. That's a relief, but why does it take a string of damning reports and tragic events, such as the murder of baby Peter in Haringey and the death of the toddler Brandon Muir in Dundee, to prompt major action from the relevant authorities? We wince with shock when report after predictable report states that inspectors are "not confident" that all children at risk are receiving the appropriate help and support.

Reflecting on why society collectively is failing to protect its vulnerable young people, I'm forced to conclude that one of the factors is our increasing impotence in recognising and responding to visible need. We allow ourselves to be hijacked by bureaucracy and, when that happens, systems triumph over people.

Take, for instance, trying to access medical help. If you're about the same age as me, you will remember that your description on the telephone of someone else's medical condition used to be taken seriously. That's changed. I recently called NHS24 for someone who couldn't speak because of an infected throat. My word wasn't enough. The unfortunate patient had to groan down the phone to authenticate my account.

This approach disturbs me. Could it be that the whole area of child protection is bogged down with this kind of nonsensical thinking? In other words, unless the child says heshe is having a bad time, we can't act on hisher behalf.

A related problem is our inertia regarding acting urgently. This is because we have increasingly surrendered to rules and regulations which do not put the child at the centre of their thinking. While we are scrabbling around wondering which protocol to apply to the situation, children are being tormented by their circumstances.

Yet another reason why at risk children fall through the net is our new culture of superficial collegiality, which runs like a fault-line through our local authorities. An earthquake is waiting to happen. Robust criticism is discouraged because rocking the boat is seen not as a route to innovative ways of thinking, but as an act of defiance to be airbrushed out of the picture. Whistle-blowing, always discouraged in the teaching profession, is now viewed as an act of treachery. As a result, teachers and others have no voice, and children are harmed while we dribble our assent to policies and practices which are often inimical to the welfare of children.

Schools work hard at making sure their staff know what to do if they suspect that a child is being abused. Information is passed on in good faith to the authorities beyond, yet it seems action is often not timely or strong enough. Should we be more judgmental on those who are responsible for but fail to deliver on child protection? Files packed with policies will not fix our broken children. In dehumanising our attitude to people we have lost empathy; without that, there is no hope.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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