Fitness to Parent

Being subject to the relentless forward propulsion of the 24 hour newscycle as we all are, it’s easy to forget stories from just 3 weeks ago. But even after the death of Margaret Thatcher and the Boston Marathon bombings, the story of how one man visited psychological and physical abuse upon so many, ending in the burning to death of 6 of his own children still sticks in my gullet, and, to my mind at least, warrants some serious thought, not least by national and local government agencies.

To recap, Phillpott lived with 2 women, through whom he acquired benefit payments directly into his bank account. Philpott, his wife and lover shared a 3 bedroom house with 11 children. Philpott had appeared on national television bragging about his lifestyle. Now, I’ve said before that how other people choose to live their life and express their love is no concern of mine, but in a case with children who I believe are entitled to the highest levels of protection, I have to draw the line.

The risk to any child – physical risk – in the care of Philpott was massively high. Why is there no system in place to effectively protect them?

The insurance industry has got judging risk is down to a fine art. When you apply for car insurance multiple risk factors are taken into account before you get a quote for a premium. How many miles you drive in the car each year. Your past claims history. Your age. Your address. The type of car you drive. And so on.

We accept the risk assessment of insurance companies – backed by evidence based upon the claims history of a huge pool of people – as being a generally good way of judging risk. We can say with confidence that a newly qualified driver at university, regularly driving a souped up Citreon Saxo around town and up and down the motorway to visit mum and dad during holidays, who parks on the road in a high crime area is, on average, more likely to make a car insurance claim than an middle-aged housewife driving a VW Polo TDI who happens to live in a low-crime area and who parks her car in a locked garage.

Yes. There are exceptions to the rule. The housewife may be involved in an accident, and the newly qualified driver may well beat the odds, but the point is that there is a system that assigns appropriate levels of risk, and, on the whole, that risk assessment is supported by historical data and facts.

We don’t really think about applying risk assessments to people. But we do it all the time. If I see a man in the street armed with a knife, I very likely judge the risk of some form of physical violence to be unacceptably high and will seek to avoid that situation. Similarly, if you apply for a job which involves looking after children, prepare to go through a police check for your previous criminal history. And if you are on the violent and sex offender register, there’s a high probability that you would be considered too high a risk to leave alone with a child.

This stuff isn’t controversial. Adults can judge risk for themselves and take action accordingly. Young children, though, are not normally expected to be great risk assessors, and they are certainly not responsible for accepting responsibility for being left in a high-risk situation. If nothing else, the victims of Jimmy Saville proved this.

I think it’s fair to say that the situation that Philpott’s children were in could reasonably have been considered to represent a high-risk to their well being. Lets look at the facts:

  • Philpott had a recent history of physical abuse of his wife having been given a police caution
  • Philpott had been convicted stabbing a previous girlfriend and breaking her arm and finger in 1978, a violent crime which alone could probably discount him from jobs involving the care of dependent or vulnerable individuals
  • Philpott beat his first wife before leaving her for the girlfriend he later stabbed
  • Philpott was on bail at the time he set fire to his own house over a road rage incident that included violence
  • Philpott did not have a regular job and the wages of the two women he lived with and all the family benefits were paid directly into his bank account
  • The house the children were in was apparently massively over-occupied on a permanent basis

It can’t be beyond the wit of man to devise a risk assessment procedure through which children in an environment controlled by a man with a history and pattern of behaviour like one listed above can be taken to a place outside the direct or indirect control of a person who clearly has issues.

It’s not just violence against humans that could be an indication of risk, there isevidence that links cruelty to animals and cruelty to children and vulnerable adults.

In the vast majority of cases, the best place for any child is with their parents. Whilst we know that most people will not engage in high-risk behaviour, we still need an effective system in place that manages transgressions – especially where there are multiple instances of serious violence.

The Every Child Matters initiative has apparently been in place for a decade, but what good did it do for the children in the care of Philpott? When doctors do wrong, they have to face a Fitness to Practice panel. When drivers make a serious mistake, they lose their licence, or their insurance costs rise. When people abuse animals they can be disqualified from looking after animals. Philpott had a demonstrable history of violence, and yet was permitted to care for children who probably had no concept of the magnitude of malevolence of which he was capable.

As a society we don’t have a problem placing sanctions on people with a demonstrable pattern of irresponsible behaviour, but it seems to me that when it comes to our kids, we’ve still got some work to do to pre-emptively protect children so that they can be removed from harms way before they become victims.

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