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The Mother who committed suicide after “years of abuse” from local youths.

October 2, 2009

The dust is starting to settle on this story, of events two years ago, which regained prominence due to a Coroner’s Court hearing. There will, though, be an IPCC investigation into the handling of events.

I waited a while, because it’s always wise to ensure that most of the facts have emerged from beneath the summary headlines. But now I feel that this is another example of what I’m becoming more and more preoccupied with.

The focus of the judicial scrutiny, and definitely that of the reporting, has been on what the various ‘Agencies’ did or didn’t do – the Police, Social Services, Doctors and the NHS, and so on. As a result, the focus of the response has equally been to criticise those who somehow failed. Any reaction to this, in turn, will therefore no doubt be about processes and structures… and ‘roles’ and ‘guidance’ and…

The aim will be to ensure that something sufficiently similar doesn’t happen again – and this can be difficult, especially if you concentrate on processes, because the next time it will be a bit different. In fact, it’s quite possible that some of the process that got in the way of helping Fiona Pilkington was, itself, the product of recommendations and changes resulting from one or more bad cases in the past.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be such reviews, they may well do some good. But I think that, in line with what I’ve said before, there are two problems which will persist if we are always drawn to systems and to picking over institutional failings. Both of them stem from the “Other People” problem.

The professionals involved in the case are all “Other People” insofar as they were fulfilling certain duties on behalf of the rest of us. We sub-contracted the duty of care for vulnerable members of the community to them, and they discharged this duty in line with formally defined roles. Those roles define and constrain their reactions – for example, by encoding the level of seriousness of the case and somehow prioritising it – often, to be fair, in the face of very high caseloads. It’s the system, too, which we now somehow expect to taken on the burden of coordinating the responses of the different agencies – perhaps through ‘flags’ and databases and the ubiquitous form. Much of the time this must suppress people’s instinctive judgements or their ability to pick up the phone and have a chat about someone.

But there’s a much more serious “Other People” issue here. Perhaps I should have put it up front. It’s the question, “Why was this problem left to the ‘Agencies’ and where were the neighbours?”

The appropriate reactions may be difficult to gauge – the ‘local youths’ may have been genuinely nasty customers, or just boisterous and naughty in a way that a vulnerable family couldn’t cope with – but that doesn’t mean the local community could leave it to “Other People” on the grounds that it was none of their business, or embarrassing, or a bit scary. There are a lot of neighbours, in most places, and by absenting themselves they throw the emphasis even more strongly onto “Other People” and their processes.

We are where we are, I know, and I don’t expect local communities to spontaneously come out from behind their curtains and their TV screens. But I do wonder whether we need to do more, set more examples as individuals, to give neighbours and neighbourhoods the means to respond to trouble, and to take powers (as opposed to calling for ever more powers to be vested in “Other People”) to hold relevant Agencies to account when complaints and information seem to fall on deaf ears. At some point there were probably some neighbours who thought “Other People” were now dealing with it, or who just gave up when it became clear that “Other People” weren’t, because they thought they’d exhausted all their options or had done enough. Then there were probably a lot more neighbours who just looked the other way.

There have been some great examples of empowered local individuals in some of the most difficult areas of the country – but I think that even these examples run the risk of turning these local champions themselves into drip-feed recruits to the ranks of “Other People”.

What needs to change, as ever, is the culture – the culture that makes the majority feel that this isn’t their business. It’s a culture that has been supported by fear of ‘the mob’, of ‘vigilantes’ and of behaviour typified (famously) by attacks on the homes of Pediatricians… Some neighbours, it seems, aren’t well informed enough, or smart enough, to be trusted with the task of being a community. That’s why it has to be outsourced to ‘Agencies’ who can duly apply processes for fairness, rightness and rationality – and then got bogged down in them. I think that’s a terrifying thought, and I think it sets foot on a path all the way to totalitarianism or, at best, some kind of elitist paternalism.

It sounds like I’m part of the ‘political correctness gone mad’ brigade, or that I’m advocating mob rule. I’m not. One of the things about a communal majority is that it often has to exert no more force and intervention than mere visible disapproval. Visible disapproval… not the absent curtain twitching that makes bullies feel important and powerful… but equally not sallying outside with baseball bats and blazing torches. One place where the two may marry up – and I have just seen this advocated by Frank Field in a blog post which, gratifyingly, connects the argument with the case of the dinner lady I last blogged about  – is by making it easier for a neighbourhood to use powers (some of which may already have been on the statute books for centuries!) to require the Magistrates and the Police to do something, specific, there and then. That’s “Other People” acting on behalf of the community with a real directness, and not as isolated aliens reporting to some system which feels remote to ordinary people.

I think there are all sorts of neighbourhood policing initiatives which are to be praised and which could be part of this but, as I said of the local champions, every case needs to be judged on whether it is seen  as collaboration across a divide, or as part of the process of dissolving that divide. For me, only the latter works. Radical reduction in the chances of another Fiona Pilkington case happening lie not in the modification of process and guidance, nor in ritual sacrifice of specific officials, nor even in “better communication between ‘Agencies’ and local people”. Radical reduction depends on the dissolution of that gap ‘between Agencies and local people’, between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’.

Now… what can I do?

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