On 25 February 2000, at St Mary’s Hospital, London, the life of Victoria Climbié, a happy, lively and healthy child came to a tragic end. At the time, countless professionals failed to recognise the signs and symptoms of child abuse. Lord Laming was tasked with completing an Independent Statutory Inquiry, similar to what has happened in Malta this week when retired Judge Philip Sciberras was appointed to look into the untimely death of a seven year old girl living in Zabbar, also named Victoria.
Lord Laming, who was a seasoned social worker, led an Inquiry which lasted just under two years and made 108 landmark recommendations. The Inquiry recognised that every professional in Victoria’s life was responsible for her wellbeing. Dr Lesley Ashford, a consultant, said, “it is the worst case of child abuse and neglect that I have ever seen”. In the space of a few months Victoria had been transformed from a happy, lively and healthy little girl to a broken child suffering 128 separate injuries.
When I moved to the UK to work as a child protection social worker a few years after Victoria’s death, I had to hit the ground running in order to meet the high demands the job and my clients required, and I can vouch Victoria’s memory was very much alive and her legacy strong. In fact Victoria’s painful experience had a profound effect on child protection practice in the UK and beyond, including Malta.
This week the whole of Malta heard about another Victoria, a 7 year old girl living in Zabbar who tragically passed away on Sunday. Her cause of death is still unknown. It must be emphasised that we should tread cautiously when commenting on the case as there are two pending inquiries looking into the facts. The popular thing to do at this point is lambast all child protection professionals who allegedly failed the child. This would certainly serve to appease our collective shock and anger but will not help shed light on what happened to her. My preference would be to allow the independent inquiry to gather all the facts before jumping to any conclusions. In my experience, these matters are complex and as the University’s Department of Social Policy & Social Work stated, the voice of service users must be given full attention in a reflective process to safeguard children.
However, the independent inquiry final report must be made public, much like what was done in Victoria Climbié’s case, and after knowing all the facts, I am confident there will be a number of recommendations made in order to improve the child protection system and to develop the necessary checks and balances for service providers.
A number of past inquiries around the world looking into children’s services found that no system can ensure deaths do not occur, but authorities need to have a high level of accountability, training and evidence-based practice. In my view, social workers need to be allowed to do their job and not have their professional opinions ignored. We certainly need a bigger emphasis on multi-disciplinary collaboration to safeguard children. Above all, we need top managers to be competent in the field and to be free from hidden (or not so hidden) agendas.
Victoria Climbié would have celebrated her 26th birthday last November. Both Victorias share the fact that they left this world way too soon. My thoughts and prayers are with those who carry either of them in their hearts. They will never be forgotten. This is to all the children who come in contact with frontline child protective services: May you find a safe environment where you are loved, nurtured and cared for.
Andrew, a safeguarding specialist, is Head of the Safeguarding Commission and Director of Kummissjoni Ejjew Għandi