Conflating Liam Fee's death with the row over the named person scheme is political opportunism

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 6 June 2016 in Editor's note

Cases like Liam Fee's shine a light into the darkest corners of society

It is a cruel irony that in death, Liam Fee has attracted such an intensity of attention about his wellbeing that in life had so plainly evaded him.

And while we still do not know the full circumstances or the horrors that preceded this little boy’s killing, the failures that led to it have already become the subject of close scrutiny and comment by everyone from social workers to First Ministers to the press.

A two year old whose name will join a growing list of children who have led ‘almost-lives’, who have become synonymous with the most horrific cases of child abuse but also, with the inevitable inquiries and the subsequent attempts to reform the child-protection system to prevent such tragedies ever happening again.


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These cases have a huge impact, they shine a light on the darkest corners of our society. They test our understanding of family and nurture and they inevitably point the finger of blame and provoke calls for major change.

They also all tend to have a commonality: a child known to the authorities, a lack of inter-agency communication, heavy caseloads, evidence of inequality and an aversion by the family to external intervention.

Predictably, Liam Fee was already known to social work and questions are rightly being asked about what therefore went wrong. A Significant Case Review has been called and it will address whether his death could have been avoided.

These cases are complex and we have to be careful not to just look for obvious scapegoats or jump to conclusions. And one aspect of Liam’s murder that has been particularly unsavoury has been the premature and clear political opportunism of those who are critics of the named person policy to conflate his death with that yet to be enacted policy.

We don’t yet know what support Liam Fee had from a form of ‘named person’ or otherwise but to argue that it is flawed because he died is just callous and dangerously side-tracks away from the bigger issues about what went wrong.

Liam Fee died because his mother killed him. She beat him, she abused him, she tortured him and as he lay broken on the floor, she thought about herself. She went searching for answers about whether a child could die of a broken bone or whether same-sex couples could be imprisoned together.

Liam Fee’s mother and her partner confound every notion we might hold dear about what being a mother means.

But the reality is that there is only so much that the authorities can do to protect when there are adults so dysfunctional and so hell-bent on child abuse that they can systematically and relentlessly torture their own. These people are well-rehearsed in manipulation and guile. They have to be. They may have even suffered it themselves.

But just think for a moment how physically tiny two-year-old Liam Fee would have been and consider the sheer bulk that was his mother and her partner. And ask yourself, if you were a social worker who had received reports of potential harm and you had even the remotest inkling that he was at risk, would you knock at a door and take ‘nothing to see here’ for an answer? And if you then went off work sick, would you assume someone else would take over?

These are the questions that need attention, not whether a policy that has still to be introduced contributed to his death. That’s just vile.

In the last issue of Holyrood we introduced Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, a crude device, maybe, but a way to humanise just how far political rhetoric matches reality on meeting our children’s needs. It has received an amazing response, with new Labour MSP Monica Lennon even using Kirsty as the whole focus of her maiden speech in the Scottish Parliament.

I’m proud of what we are trying to do with the Holyrood baby, to hold a mirror to good political intentions and to question whether our politicians are actually ‘getting it right for every child’ or whether that is just a hollow phrase. But I depart from conventional wisdom that says all parents want the best for their child. The death of Liam Fee proves that not to be true.

Parents…mothers…are not inherently good. Some are very bad. Not everyone that has a child wanted it, knows how to care for it or is filled with love, ambition and aspiration for it to blossom and bloom into a fully formed human being who fulfils all its potential. Some parents abuse, torture and kill their children. We just don’t want to believe it.

A former social work director that I know well, who pioneered work in the 1970s with children who had been subject to horrific sexual abuse at a time when people were only just wakening up to the fact that this went on, told me last week that with the case of Liam Fee, she had returned to a phrase that she taught young social workers way back then. She called it ‘gaze aversion’ – people only see what they want to see.

Liam Fee’s plight had not gone unnoticed but it had been ignored. There is no doubt that the inquiry into his death will reveal grave and egregious mistakes. After all, he had, Fife Council has admitted, fallen “off the radar”.

So what we must do now is not avert our gaze or be distracted by calls for less intervention in a child’s life because it suits a certain political polemic, we should use it as an argument for better.

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