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Doncaster children failed by neglect and political inertia

This article is over 14 years, 5 months old
A local social worker looks at the run-up to the detention of two Doncaster boys who brutally assaulted two other children
Issue 2186

The Edlington case has reopened the debates around the nature of childhood, “broken Britain”, and the role of the state in keeping children safe.

A media-led, populist response brands these children as “devil boys”.

The parallels with the reporting of the 1993 James Bulger murder case are stark.

There is no serious attempt to understand. But there is an ideologically driven need to paint the children’s behaviour as so inexplicable that it can only be understood as “pure evil”.

As with Bulger’s killers, what will gradually emerge is detail about the boys’ lives before this horrific attack. Then we will see that there were more than two victims involved in the Edlington attack.


No one can be untouched by the brutality of these attacks and by the trauma suffered by the boys targeted.

But this was not an act of “pure evil” or of entrenched “sadists”. It was carried out by two damaged young people who have been badly failed by the system.

A look at these brothers’ short lives so far offers a picture of poverty, neglect, exclusion from school and being taken into the care system – and of 31 missed opportunities by agencies to intervene to try to make them safe.

The two boys were known to agencies ranging from children’s services to the police. They were recognised to be in need of care and supervision.

Their placement in foster care helped to create the conditions for this violent attack.

An earlier assessment on the boys had recommended that they be placed in secure accommodation – as both had previous incidents of violence.

Even before the attack the council had launched serious case reviews into the unrelated deaths of seven infants – all known to social services – in a five year period.

Like the recent assault, each one of these cases is a tragedy in its own right, but together they tell a deeper story.

This is a tale of government neglect, cost cutting and political inertia. It features a management which failed to listen to and draw on the skills and expertise of social care staff to improve the lives of young people.

The Edlington case has exposed what social care workers have known for years. “Efficiency” cuts and under-funding have left many young people increasingly at risk of harm.

And it showed that management decisions, taken in abstract and based on “the bottom line” have tragic consequences on the ground and for the lives of children.

Many commentators, including minister Ed Balls, have responded to the Edlington case by calling for children of “families that can’t be fixed” to be taken into care as babies and for the parents of the Edlington boys to face possible prosecution.

This echoes the worst tabloid stereotypes of an “underclass” of “out of control” families who should have their children seized from them.

But the stark reality is that current services are failing children in care and those living with their families.

The real “broken Britain” is the society in which competition and cost have decimated industry and communities.

Edlington is one of many villages in Doncaster that was smashed after Margaret Thatcher defeated the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.

These are communities that have struggled to rebuild, often without any real support from the state. They are marked by poor housing, economic hardship, low levels of educational attainment and poverty.

Now we are faced with the threat of greater attacks on services and support to children. A naked cost-cutting agenda is being advanced under the guise of efficiency and Doncaster’s Children’s Services needing to be “fit for purpose.”


The new right wing English Democrat mayor has stated his aim to cut council tax by 3 percent next year. This is on top of the cuts and efficiency savings of recent years.

This has nothing at all to do with improving services and everything to do with the future of the English Democrats in the local elections later this year.

The government intervention team, sent in to address the crisis in Doncaster council, is now threatening to cut vital services on the grounds of cost. These include the Education Welfare Service, Youth Offending Service and support to excluded pupils.

Senior managers in children’s services are attempting to make workers bear some of the responsibility for the failures to safeguard children. The case is being seized as an opportunity to scapegoat social care workers, with disciplinary investigations threatened.

We must reject this disgusting attempt to shift responsibility for the failure to protect young people onto workers and defend services in Doncaster and elsewhere.

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