The lessons of the “Baby P” case

Submitted by Anon on 4 December, 2008 - 11:49 Author: Sean Matgamna

Whoever is to be blamed, and however the degrees of blame are to be portioned out, the bottom line is that “Baby P” was killed after a horrific 18 month life, during all or most of which he was repeatedly beaten and physically injured by his mother, and her partner, and, perhaps, the lodger.

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This happened while the family was being supervised by the social services and “Baby P” was known to be at risk. Everyone involved from the social services must share some of the blame.

A narrow trade-unionist response to this terrible event — rallying round to defend the social workers involved — is ruled out by the nature of the work they did, in which (to repeat, however the blame should finally be apportioned) they failed utterly. Here, a narrow trade-unionist response would be the opposite of a socialist response.

What happened is beyond excusing or excuse-making. Those responsible should be called to account and removed from such work. Everyone, from the case workers, to their supervisors, to the medical doctor who, examining “Baby P” a few days before he died, did not notice that he had a broken back.

That said, however, the press outcry against Haringey social services department should not be allowed to determine what is done now. Already it is determing it. The minister responsible, Ed Balls, publicly acknowledges that his response has been influenced by the agitation of the Sun newspaper.

The one million people who have put their names to the Sun’s petition for the social workers, managers, and doctors to be sacked evidently needed to find an outlet for their proper sense of outrage. But in its day-to-day attitudes, the Sun, in relation to society, is the near equivalent of the wretches who tortured and finally killed “Baby P”.

The Sun and the rest of the “red-top” press and their owners are unashamed supporters of all the things in this society that make the ill-treatment of children inevitable. The Sun and its rivals hounding social workers here are the Devil campaigning against the sin he devotes his time to encouraging!

An authoritative report in the Lancet estimates that at any given time upwards of ten per cent of children in Britain — one million! — are victims of ongoing physical abuse from parents and guardians. Everybody interested knows that this is true, and that if the estimate errs, it errs by underestimation.

You can see aspects of it in the streets and the supermarkets, where parents routinely shout at, threaten, bully, or slap a distressed small child, adding to the distress. Within the family — whether old-fashioned nuclear family, or families where the mother’s or father’s partners are not directly related to the children — the children are the easy scapegoats, the safe targets, for the stronger adults’ anger, frustration, and for their sense of helplessness in society. They are the safe targets to whom the abuse — physical, verbal, social — which the adults themselves experience (and most likely experienced as children) can be passed on.

The young partner of “Baby P”‘s mother is reported to be illiterate. He is therefore someone most grievously wronged and injured by the education system, and thus someone condemned to a pretty miserable existence. Such people are themselves scapegoats; and children like “Baby P” and one million others in Britain are the "scapegoats of the scapegoats".

None of this diminishes the monstrous behaviour of “Baby P”‘s murderers — that is what they are, whatever they were charged with — or lessens their personal responsibility. None of it is meant to imply that they they should not be held fully accounted and properly punished.

The point is to try to understand the social preconditions of the terrible things done to “Baby P” and the terrible things being done now to vast numbers of other children. Poverty, social degradation and exclusion, ignorance, ill-treatment when the ill-treaters were themselves children, the sense of their own social helplessness — all this is the reason why people capable of better behaviour wind up venting their distress and compensating for it by ill-treating and sometimes killing small children in their care.

The conditions that foster such behaviour are produced by the social regime of which the Sun and the other vigilante would-be avengers of “Baby P” are both champions and by-products.

A narrow trade-unionist response is no way for socialists to respond now; but neither is the approach of that press which exults in hypocritical outrage against the inevitable results of the social conditions of which they are the inveterate champions and defenders.

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