Toddler death: Council bosses speak out
By Benedict O'ConnorCOUNCIL bosses have said the social services failures that led to the death of toddler Emily Wilkinson were bred in a climate of low staff morale and a lack of funding.
By Benedict O'Connor
COUNCIL bosses have said the social services failures that led to the death of toddler Emily Wilkinson were bred in a climate of low staff morale and a lack of funding.
John Gregg, Suffolk County Council's assistant director for children's services, and Cliff James, its head of safeguarding children's services, have described the circumstances in which Emily's neglect slipped through the net.
After the council was castigated by West Suffolk MP Richard Spring, the pair agreed to meet the East Anglian Daily Times and outlined how they intended to stop other children from suffering the same fate as Emily.
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Social services have been criticised for failing to adequately react to numerous reports of neglect and evidence of extreme squalor at Emily's home in Great Bradley, near Haverhill.
It culminated in February 2003 when her parents, Richard and Karen Wilkinson, allowed their 22-month-old daughter to wander off and she drowned in her grandmother's pond.
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The couple, from Brandon, were jailed on Friday for 30 months after being found guilty of manslaughter.
Mr Gregg said when Emily died almost two years ago, the council had been operating under a different regime.
“I wouldn't say that the situation a couple of years ago was absolutely awful, what I would say is that the way I which the service was organised was not making the best use of the resources that were available,” he added.
Mr Gregg explained that a comparative study with similar authorities also showed that Suffolk County Council had suffered from a relative lack of resources, but an extra £5.2million had since been ploughed in, bringing the annual social services budget for the county to about £30m.
He added: “At one time morale was very low, people didn't feel valued in their jobs, they didn't feel valued in the organisation and we have now got people who feel very positive and there is a lot of enthusiasm.”
Mr Gregg said the county's social services had undergone a tremendous sea-change in the past four or five years and although changes were being made at the time of Emily's death, they had not really come into effect.
“At the time social services management was based in a central office and while there was a logic to that system, it was not ideal for managers to give support to social workers,” he added.
“Now that has been changed so that managers are working from regional offices so they are able to give more support and there is a better exchange of information.
“These are very complex issues that social workers are dealing with, such as evaluating whether it is better for a child to stay with its family, or more traumatic for the child to be removed - in nine out of 10 cases no matter what the behaviour of the parents, the child will still think they are perfect.
“Having tightened up the system, there is now a clearer process for dealing with such cases.”
Although not entirely due to Emily's death, nor that of 16-month-old Robbie Taylor, from Knodishall, near Leiston, who drowned in August 2003 in a kitchen bin filed with water and cleaning fluid, social services had undergone a rigorous change in the past two years, according to Mr James.
He said 16 new social workers had been employed in children's services, along with six extra customer service officers, three new locality managers and six new managers to oversee child protection plans.
“We have provided considerable training and guidance to staff to assess and establish the level of risk and the level of care we need to be providing and where the level of parenting falls short in order to safeguard the best possible future for children,” added Mr James.
He said the controls for following up the transfer of cases from other counties had been tightened up, along with a more robust case follow-up system.
Mr James added modes of assessment in dealing with abused and neglected children had been strengthened, as had interaction with police and other bodies, and a website had been set up to enable the public to examine social services procedure.
Mr Gregg said Emily's case was also being used as in training social workers to help avoid recurrences of similar tragedies.
But Mr Spring said he was not satisfied with the explanation of low morale and lack of funding.
He felt that did not explain the inability of social services to deal with a child who was clearly in danger from neglect, although he acknowledged there had been significant improvements in the service recently.