Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Danielle's legacy of protection

Full Story:
WITH her pretty smile and blonde hair, five-year-old Danielle Reid was known to her extended family as a "wee angel". Nursery and school staff remembered her as a "lovely wee girl", she was popular with her peers, and neighbours spoke of her fondly. But all that is left are their memories. Five years ago this month Danielle was killed when her mother's boyfriend, Lee Gaytor, hit her repeatedly before throwing her down a flight of stairs at her Inverness home. His brother, Chris, and Danielle's mother, Tracy Reid, walked across the city with her body in a suitcase before weighting it down and throwing it in the Caledonian Canal. In the last months of her life Danielle had all but disappeared. She was withdrawn from school in September 2002 by her mother, who claimed the family were moving to Manchester. Her relatives grew increasingly worried as access was denied. But her school and the education authority did little to establish her wellbeing, or check that she had indeed enrolled with a primary in Manchester. By November, the concerns of one family member were such that they alerted social services. Danielle wasn't officially reported missing until just before midnight on December 31, 2002. Her body was found a week later. It was a case that shocked the nation. But after the shock came the questions. How had this been allowed to happen? And how could our child protection procedures be changed to ensure that a case like this was never allowed to slip through the net again? An independent review commissioned by Jean Herbison, consultant paediatrician at Yorkhill Hospital, found that Danielle had "become invisible" to social services. Despite relatives' concerns about serious neglect, Tracy Reid's drug use and relationship with a man previously known to the police for violent behaviour, no concerns about her welfare were noted. Dr Herbison concluded that while no one individual was to blame, better information sharing and liaison between social work, health and education services might have saved Danielle, and recommended that agencies standardise their procedures and responses to avoid confusion. All of this was to be implemented within six months. So has it happened? Five years on, big changes certainly seem to be afoot in Highland Council's Children and Family Services division. The local authority has been designated a "pathfinder" agency for Getting it Right for Every Child (Girfec), a national reform programme developed by the previous Labour-led Scottish Executive which sets out to ensure professionals work together to better protect and support children and young people. It's been a little more than a year now since it took up the role. While the introduction of the reform was not a direct result of Danielle's murder, and consultation on the policy started before Dr Herbison's report, many of its features fall firmly in line with her call for a multi-agency approach. Over the last year Highland Council has been implementing Girfec's reforms. It began with introducing single child-focused records for every young person from birth to 18, managed by a leading professional, which cuts back on duplication of workload and makes sure no gaps are left that could mean risk is not picked up. Previously, the system was riddled with such gaps. "We used to assess children many times," explains Bill Alexander, director of Child and Family Services. "The doctor and midwife assessed the child as soon as they were born, then the checks were done by health visitors. But at the age of three, when the child moved into pre-school, we started with a blank sheet of paper. "At five when the child started school it's the same process and if the child had any higher needs, such as the input of a child psychologist, they would also arrive without any previous records." It makes no sense, adds Alexander, and is far worse for children with complex needs. Under the old system a looked-after-child on the child protection register with special educational needs could be subject to three sets of meetings with different professionals and carers, with three separate action plans to follow. Now all such agencies work together to develop one plan, with information shared between the family and the professionals working with them. More controversially, where there is perceived risk or need, information may go on a child's record and be shared with everyone who has a professional interest in the child. Concerns about such information sharing are "appropriate", Alexander says, but often families are surprised that it doesn't already take place. "Families assume that when they are working with different agencies, those agencies are working collaboratively," he says. "They assume that the family aren't the people who have to make the joins and they get very frustrated when they see gaps that no-one else seems aware of."

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