9 October

Bureaucracy, Parental Abuse and Conscience

In the aftermath of horrible deaths at parental hands of Baby P., Daniel Pelka, Hamzah Khan and Keanu Williams, questions are naturally being asked as to what more might have been done by way of prevention.
Unsurprisingly, the parents of these poor boys have been sentenced to prison. On paper perhaps, and technically, the local authorities in question may have fulfilled duties of care for children understood to be at risk, yet the very fact of four such (reported) cases in thirteen months gives the lie to this. Even as parents shamefully ignored a duty of care for their own children in causing their deaths, so too have communities and local authorities displayed startling negligence of children to be found in such cheerless and damaging homes.
The natural tendency is to call for more thorough checks and increased powers of intervention for local government bodies, as well as more efficient information-sharing between police, carers and medical staff who know children in dysfunctional or abusive homes. Such measures may indeed go some way to preventing like tragedies, but we must be careful. Despite no shortage of bureaucratic protocols, these boys still died.
Parents with so blatant a disregard for the humanity and welfare of even their own children are indeed in desperate need of correction, but we must ensure that in our efforts to ‘humanise’ the negligent and abusive we do not get in the way of, or compromise, ordinary family life for an overwhelming majority of dedicated and selfless parents. Whatever the powers and duties exercised by the State to intervene legally in the lives of children, such actions call for a degree of sensitivity to people and circumstances that bureaucratic procedure can rarely encompass. Moreover, when faced with a tendency to empower the State at every turn in the name of being seen to be acting we must not treat with scant regard potential long-term consequences. As Pitt the Younger declared, ‘Necessity is the language of tyrants, and the creed of slaves’.
In one of the recent cases, that of Hamzah Kahn, it was, we are told, a police officer’s ‘maternal instinct’ or conscience that prompted her to investigate the house where his body had lain for two years undetected. It was not technically a requirement of her job that she do so. ‘Correct procedures’ had been followed in this case, but Hamzah still starved to death as a result of his mother’s wilful neglect. That his body should have been discovered only after another mother followed her ‘instinct’ must lead one to wonder if bureaucracy is capable of anything more than exculpation of authorities from wrong-doing.
We can modify our procedures as much as we like, but we cannot afford to neglect formation of conscience in schools and institutions which may be able thereby to fill in, at least to a limited extent, for dysfunctional families. It is that which we are missing, not efficient bureaucratic procedures. Conscience rather than procedure might have done something towards saving the lives of the boys we have seen horrifically abused of late.

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