Lessons need to be learned following Liam Fee’s death

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Matt Forde, the national head of service for NSPCC Scotland, speaks out after the convictions of the two-year-old's killers

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6th June 2016 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

We’ve all been utterly shocked at what happened to Liam Fee and the two boys he lived with. No-one who’s read anything about the case could help but feel outraged. Liam’s short life was marked by the most horrendous abuse and neglect, carried out the very people who were supposed to keep him safe. The suffering he experienced is difficult to comprehend.

In reaction to Liam’s death and the conviction of his mother and her partner, we at the NSPCC and others have called for wider lessons to be learned. Fife Child Protection Committee has begun a Significant Case Review to look at what went wrong. It’s right that we let this process take its course before drawing conclusions about system change. However, we need to make sure that that process itself helps us learn those lessons.

Serious case reviews, as they are known in England, are done on a more formal and systematic basis than they are here. The process is stipulated in statutory guidance, they must be published - indeed the NSPCC is the repository for all SCRs conducted in England - and they are analysed nationally to identify common themes which may point to system reform. In Scotland, it’s less structured, with decisions about publication and format being at the discretion of the Child Protection Committee. The potential for learning is therefore more limited. The Scottish Government published an analysis of SCRs in 2012 but they have not repeated the exercise. So while we talk about learning lessons, as we must do, we need to ensure we have a system which enables us to do so.

Liam's tragic story comes to our attention at a time when the Scottish Government is undertaking a major review of our child protection system. The review, which is due to report by the end of the year, will consider many facets of the system - including the SCR process, Child Protection Committees, the Child Protection Register - as well as look at leadership, inspection and the Children's Hearings system. It will also specifically focus on child neglect.

Lessons need to be learned following Liam Fee’s deathMatt Forde

Over a thousand children were placed on the child protection register in Scotland last year due to concerns about neglect or emotional abuse.

A child dying at the hands of their parents or carers is a rare occurrence in Scotland. Neglect, however, is less so. Over a thousand children were placed on the child protection register in Scotland last year due to concerns about neglect or emotional abuse.

There are more children suffering abuse or neglect than those who are known to social workers. We estimate that for every child subject to a child protection plan or register in the UK, another eight have suffered maltreatment. These children are not visible. How can we help those children living unhappy lives in circumstances which do not meet thresholds for formal intervention?

Our model of response is still largely one which is incident-led, with services having less capacity to address ‘low level’ cases where there may be no significantly harmful incident, but where the level of care children need is absent. This can have a serious impact on a child’s wellbeing but is less likely to come to the attention of professionals. If, as a result of constrained resources, services are changing their focus to deal with more pressing and visible cases, we may be in danger of compounding the impact of neglect by collectively neglecting these families.

Almost ten years ago, the then Chief Medical Officer, Sir Harry Burns, wrote a landmark report which underlined the importance of children’s early years, and linked Scotland’s poor adult health outcomes with childhood adversity. Since then we have seen a sequence of reports and policy developments – the report of the Christie Commission; Joining the Dots; the Early Years Framework; the National Parenting Strategy; the Early Years Collaborative – all affirming again and again that we need to support children and families from the outset, to prevent crises arising. There’s a collective acceptance that this is the right way forward, both financially and societally.

Yet it’s not happening, or certainly not happening on the scale we want it to. We simply haven’t seen the shift in investment required to realise our desired transformational change. In child and family policy, we often aspire to be like our Scandinavian neighbours whose children repeatedly top child wellbeing tables. But those countries are where they are because they make deliberate decisions to prioritise investment in children and in families.

We talk a good game in Scotland about prevention and early intervention but we need to put our money where our mouth is. And we have made some progress. The Scottish Government has recently pledged 500 more health visitors and developed a refreshed health visitor pathway to ensure children and families see their health visitor more regularly. These are positive and welcome developments, but we need to go much further.

To make early intervention a reality we need to invest in infant and maternal mental health. Supporting the parent-child relationship is crucial to giving every child the nurturing and loving foundation they need to grow and to prevent abuse and neglect.

Tragically, something went horrendously wrong in the relationship between Liam, his mum and Nyomi Fee, with the most devastating of consequences. The two boys who remain, who also suffered horrendous abuse, will need significant support to help them come to terms with their experiences and begin to recover. They need love and stability.

This week is infant mental health week, during which we put a spotlight on the developmental and care needs of very young children. If Liam's case teaches us anything, it underlines that investing in children and their earliest experiences and relationships is an urgent national priority.

Matt Forde is national head of service for NSPCC Scotland.