Our statement on the Ayeeshia Smith case

Chief Executive Peter Wanless shares our statement on the Ayeeshia Smith case

More than 70 years ago a young boy called Dennis O’Neil was beaten to death on a farm by his foster father. The 13-year- old had been starved so severely that he tried to stay alive by sucking cows’ udders.

The case provoked horror and revulsion on such a scale that an official inquiry was set-up to investigate how a teenage boy could be so horrifically maltreated that he weighed just four stone when he died.

Since then, a succession of devastating child deaths have in turn dominated headlines and prompted the eternal questions: how could it have happened, what went wrong and what can we learn from the tragedy?

The roll call of horror is etched in the public consciousness. 7-year-old Maria Colwell, Jasmine Beckford, 4; Tyra Henry, 21 months; Victoria Climbie, 8, Peter Connelly, 17 months, Daniel Pelka, 4. And now Ayeeshia Smith, 21 months, who was stamped to death by her mother.

"There is a lack of effective communication between professionals"
Peter Wanless / NSPCC Chief Executive

Cold, callous cruelty is a feature in all of these cases. But the lengthy Serious Case Reviews undertaken after each death typically identify failure to see, listen or learn from children themselves – they can seem to be hiding in plain sight. Opportunities to log and share suspicions of abuse are missed. There is a lack of effective communication between professionals.

Last year there were over 160,000 investigations undertaken by local authority children’s services to determine whether a child was at risk of suffering significant harm. That’s over 400 a day. And of these just under 50,000 were given a protection plan. We never hear about the vast majority of them because social workers will have done a very good job assessing the risks and protecting the child.

Can we ever ensure that every child at risk of cruelty gets the right level of protection? That must surely be our ambition and it’s a responsibility all of us must face up to. Those professionals who work directly with children have particular opportunities to help but so do those who design and resource the systems they work within. And so do any of us carrying a concern about a child but who are not be sure quite what to do about it.

"We all take responsibility to look out for signs of abuse, take action and refuse to tolerate cruelty to children by anyone"
Peter Wanless / NSPCC Chief Executive

We can’t pre-empt the Serious Case Review into little Ayeeshia’s death but none of us should be satisfied if what we hear are more references to missed opportunities. We must prevent child abuse, not explain it away.

That is our mission. We run programmes working with violent parents, trying to get them to change their behaviour, building evidence to help others understand what is possible. We also run a helpline for people to report incidents if any of you have a worry that a child is being badly neglected or harmed.

Those involved in specialist work carried out by local authorities are part of the answer. But we can never feel confident that enough is being done until we all take responsibility to look out for signs of abuse, take action and refuse to tolerate cruelty to children by anyone. Only then will vulnerable toddlers like Ayeeshia Smith be in a safer place.