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Keanu Williams: Are the children of Birmingham safe tonight?

  • 3 October 2013
  • From the section UK
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Keanu Williams
Keanu Williams was beaten to death by his mother

Are the children of Birmingham safe tonight? That was my first question to the man who runs the city's child protection services and his answer was, effectively, "no".

"The position today is very frail and children are not consistently safeguarded," Peter Hay admitted to me. The reason? "Because we do not have enough social workers and some of those we do have are not good enough."

Mr Hay, the fourth head of Birmingham's children's services department in as many years, admits that the city's track record is very poor. The death of two-year-old Keanu Williams is, he accepts, "a further blight upon the city's reputation".

One local MP, Khalid Mahmood, claims that there have been 23 serious case reviews since 2006 in the city, each one pinpointing where child protection agencies could or should have done more.

"That's a huge number of people we have lost in the city and that is not acceptable," he says. "The most vulnerable in our society are not being supported, are not being looked after, and we have lost another one."

Thursday's serious case review concludes that the agencies in Birmingham "did not meet the standards of basic good practice", they missed a "significant number of opportunities to intervene" and there was a "lack of confidence to challenge parents and other professionals".

They are criticisms we have heard too many times before - optimistic social workers hoping for the best, failing to pass on their concerns and with a lack of focus on the children and their welfare.

The chair of Birmingham's Safeguarding Children's Board, Jane Held, admitted that, with Keanu, agencies failed to hear him, to see him, to walk in his shoes.

"We have had some very painful times reflecting on what needs to happen differently Birmingham," she told me. "And what needs to happen different in Birmingham is that all of us need to behave differently."

Many of the familiar conclusions from Thursday's serious case review will reinforce advice which is being reiterated to children's services departments around the country. Social workers must listen to the voice of the child and must employ respectful disbelief when they listen to the voice of the parent.

Behind Keanu's tragedy, though, lies a children's services department stumbling from crisis to crisis, labelled inadequate by inspectors, morale at rock bottom,

There is no obvious solution for the council, though. In the past four years, children's services have seen senior managers forced out, trouble-shooters parachuted in, three reorganisations, multiple reviews.

This latest scandal has seen sackings and disciplinary action. There is the promise of yet another review of frontline procedures.

Mr Hay's problem is that he needs more experienced staff to come and help him in Birmingham, but each new tragedy and the subsequent criticism of staff and agencies makes recruitment more difficult. He has more than 100 vacancies and is currently relying on agency workers to keep the department functioning.

The government has accepted "there is no quick fix" in Birmingham but the Children's Minister Edward Timpson has said that if he does not see rapid improvement, "further action will follow".

The prospect of central government taking control away from the local authority, perhaps a similar intervention to that recently threatened in Doncaster, fills leaders in Birmingham with dismay.

They argue that what is needed is a period of stability and improvement not another major overhaul.

It is a vicious circle of decline that leaves the city's children at greater risk.

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