Skip to main content

BASW backs Khyra Ishaq review and urges investment in social work to minimise risk of future tragedies

BASW has responded to the full publication of the Serious Case Review into the tragic death of Khyra Ishaq by urging others to join social work in learning lessons from the case. The SCR revealed that professionals who worked with Khyra, the seven-year-old Birmingham girl who died from starvation in 2008, missed a number of opportunities to intervene and could have prevented her death.

The SCR, the first to be published in full, identifies a series of lapses by several agencies including the police, family GP, school medical team and children’s social care.

BASW chief executive Hilton Dawson, speaking shortly after the review was published on July 27, four months after Khyra’s mother and her boyfriend were convicted of manslaughter, said that social workers everywhere must learn the lessons from it but that government too had to recognise that the profession needed a major injection of support if it was to go further in protecting children from harm.

“This tragedy and the opportunity offered by the new coalition government can be a new turning point in the battle to protect children, but only with a determined will to give social workers the support they must have to be at their most effective.

“Social work simply must receive the investment in training, pay and career structures, combined with real measures to reduce bureaucracy and free social workers to spend time with children and families, if we are to go further and minimise the chances of tragedies such as the death of Khyra Ishaq in future.”

In April, the council said that three social workers had been disciplined over Khyra’s death. The report says that communications between agencies in Birmingham led to a number of missed opportunities to intervene by professionals two years before Khyra’s death.

“Three incidents during March 2006 were not progressed, either by failures of paperwork to reach the correct departments, failure to follow safeguarding procedures, or to conduct thorough checks prior to case closure, resulting in any knowledge and intervention remaining purely single agency at that stage,” the review says.

By December 2007 there was clear evidence Khyra was stealing food and in the same month she and some of her five siblings were removed from school by their mother, who said she intended to educate them at home. This followed changes to the mother’s behaviour, “deteriorating relationships with schools, increased aggression to and reduced cooperation with all professionals”.

When school staff attempted to communicate their concerns to children’s social care, they were not properly heard, the review says. “Concerns were inaccurately recorded initially and the focus placed upon attendance issues, as opposed to mother’s changed behaviour, increased aggression to professionals and the children’s obsession with food.”

Social workers appear to have under-estimated the gravity of the referral. They asked the school to undertake an assessment using the common assessment framework and request a police “safe and well” check, which the review deems “inappropriate”. An initial social work assessment in February 2008 was not completed and the risks to the children were inadequately understood, largely because professionals were unable to get past the mother.

The review says: “Adult resistance to professional intervention, doorstep conversations, the mother’s sound knowledge of home education legislation and a hostile and aggressive approach, influenced and affected professional actions, preventing a full understanding of conditions within the home and seemed to render professionals impotent, thereby directing the focus away from the welfare of children”.

Particular concerns about safeguarding children subject to home education are raised in the review. It notes that there is no effective method to ensure that home education remains suitable, developmentally appropriate and safe for a child, and it adds: “Given the tragic outcomes identified within this review, [this] also represents a major safeguarding flaw.”

The review notes that between 1998 and 2008 the children missed a minimum of 129 professional appointments, which was only partly explainable by the pressures on parents of a large family. Failed attendance increased dramatically in 2007, yet “the response to these failures within the agencies was not always actively addressed, or the significance fully understood and therefore not communicated with partner agencies.”

In its recommendations, the review calls for work to identify how inter-agency communication can be improved, examinations of the referral screening and assessment processes in Birmingham children’s social care, and the education secretary to be made aware of safeguarding worries about home education, “emphasising that the parents’ right to home educate does not outweigh the rights of the child”.

Les Lawrence, cabinet member for children, young people and families at Birmingham council, said the majority of the lessons from the serious case review had already been acted on.

He added: “Today, as we remember Khyra Ishaq’s life, we re-affirm our commitment to create a children’s social care service that better protects our young people from those who would harm them. Let this be Khyra Ishaq’s legacy.”

Hilton Dawson said many people would question how such a tragedy could happen in the 21st century but reminded people that social workers had also played their part in reducing such instances over recent decades.

“Social workers know, better than anybody, how to best safeguard children and research over the past 30 years shows that good social work systems have reduced child deaths by some 40%, from around 130 deaths per year in 1974 to some 80 in 2006,” Mr Dawson said.

“Yet this relative success has been achieved despite, not because of, government support. Even at a time of restraint in public spending social work needs to be prioritised, with real investment and much improved public support and understanding for our vital work.”