Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley, Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology

This week we have seen the publication of the Serious Case Review (SCR) into the death of Keanu Williams, brutally murdered by his mother Rebecca Shuttleworth – now serving a minimum 18 year prison sentence. We have also seen the conclusion of the trial of Amanda Hutton – found guilty of the manslaughter of her son, 4-year-old Hamzah Khan. Hamzah endured a lengthy period of neglect, his body discovered two years after he had died.

Keanu Williams and Hamzah Khan represent two sides of the same coin that is abuse and neglect. Keanu was very much on the radar of the services that failed him, it appears Hamzah was not – or had fallen off it unnoticed. We’d like to think that the abused and neglected children professionals know about are greater in number than the children they are not aware of. Unfortunately, the reverse is true. The NSPCC estimates that for every 1 child on Child Protection Plan or Register, there are 8 others who are not.

The SCR into Keanu Williams’ death described the collective failure of Birmingham’s services to safeguard him. It was emphasised throughout the document that ‘professionals had lost their focus on the child’. It shouldn’t really need spelling out that children should be at the centre of children’s services. So why aren’t they? I would argue that this is because professionals have become embedded in a culture of interpretive denial. They see evidence and facts of child abuse and neglect – it is right in front of them. However, they interpret this evidence and these facts in such a way as to justify not acting on them. Uncritically accepting a parent’s version of events is a key example of interpretive denial in practice. The professionals know that abusive and neglectful parents will manipulate, deceive and lie to professionals to protect their own interests. However, constrained by heavier caseloads, more processes, boxes to tick and policies to comply with, they are losing their critical edge when it comes to digging out the facts. It’s more a case of ‘every box ticked’ than ‘every child matters’.

Hamzah Khan’s death is the subject of an SCR, due to conclude soon, so it is difficult to make accurate judgements about what professionals did or didn’t do in his case. However, is it just the professionals that we need to be putting in the spotlight here? What about extended family, neighbours, friends? Have 21st century British families become so insular and hidden behind barriers of ‘privacy’ that no one even noticed when Amanda Hutton’s little boy disappeared? And if they had, why didn’t they do something / say something / tell someone / follow it up until they were satisfied he was safe? Don’t we all have a responsibility to look out for children?

As we analyse the events surrounding the deaths of Keanu and Hamzah, we do need to acknowledge that nationally, child homicide rates have been on the decrease for a long time – dropping by 30 per cent since 1980. However, every 10 days in England and Wales a child is killed by a parent and every one of those children is one child too many. We need to ask ourselves what we would do if we suspected a child was being abused or neglected? Whether we are social workers, teachers, neighbours or friends – what EXACTLY would we do? What steps would we take (or not take)? Why? These are simple questions with difficult answers – but the discussions that they would prompt may lay the foundations for change. We all need to act to address this, otherwise statistical trends in child homicide may begin to tell a different story.

Acknowledging child abuse and neglect is not easy, particularly in a society such as ours, which puts the family on an idealistic pedestal as a safe haven, a cocoon in which children are loved and nurtured. Yesterday our local news media asked the question, ‘Are children safe in Birmingham tonight?’, to which several commentators – myself included – stated ‘Not as safe as they should be’. So how do we change that? Well, we need to begin the uncomfortable and awkward but urgently necessary process of becoming more challenging of our own and other people’s behaviour around children. What would you do?

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.