Monday, November 24, 2008

Hysteria surrounds Baby P killing

Clockwise from top: Beverley Hughes, Maria Ward, Gillie Christou, Sharon Shoesmith,
Katie Price signs The Sun petition, Dr Sabah al Zayyat, Ed Balls, pixelated faces of the killers and Baby P

A ‘herd mentality’ has built around the tragic death of Baby P, a young child who died after months of abuse at the hands of his mother, her partner and lodger. When the story first came to light, there can’t have been many people unaffected by the circumstances of the tragedy. The child, who has only been identified as Baby P, suffered appalling injuries at the hands of his mother and step father. Blame has been directed not only towards the abusive parents, but also social services, the police and government. There are undoubtedly failures exhibited by social services. The law has also failed the young child, and the law may also be lacking in failing to properly protect the vulnerable. But anger and disbelief has culminated in petitions and even calls of vendettas against the mother and the stepfather.

Facebook has become a particular gathering point for those wanting to vent their anger. There are petitions calling for the sacking of social workers. Some Facebook and other social networking webpages specifically direct their anger towards the mother. Owners of the sites have closed many of the pages down, specifically those that identify the mother and call for retribution. The websites themselves have now become a focus of a police investigation [BBC]. Jason Owen, 36, from Bromley, a 32-year-old man and a 27-year-old woman were convicted of the specific charge of causing or allowing Baby P's death. But a court order, which remains in place, prevented the publication of the identities of the baby's mother and her boyfriend, as well as the child, who lived in the north London borough of Haringey. However the picture of Baby P is allowed to be printed.

The stories surrounding the abuse have followed almost daily with the tabloids leading the way with salacious details of the torture met out to the child. The Sun has started its own petition in which it calls for the sacking of social workers Sharon Shoesmith, Maria Ward and Gillie Christou. The paper also calls for the resignation of the Children's Minister, Beverley Hughes, and Ed Balls, the Education Secretary and the doctors involved in the case, Dr Sabah Al-Zayyat and Paulette Thomas, to be relieved of their duties.

But all the venom and furore surrounding the case has become almost surreal. On Thursday last week the Sun asked Katie Price, the glamour model also known as Jordan, to sign their petition while she promoted her new line of lingerie. The picture did not make it to press as she wrote “name and shame the people, wankers” on the newspaper. And in another bizarre sight, hundreds gathered in the rain at the final resting place of Baby P, some having travelled hundreds of miles. One well wisher had taken his wife, young daughter and mother in law the 300 km [190 miles] from Leeds to attend the memorial. The event highlighted in The Sun became the subject of discussion on the London radio station LBC in which talk-show host James O'Brien described the event as “weird” and suggested that there was a sense of a “herd mentality“ surrounding such phenonema.

The law may not be harsh enough; it has emerged the mother may be released within months. Procedures over the care of vulnerable children may not be strict enough. And doctors and police may not be trained well enough to identify signs of abuse. But ‘mob rule’ is not the solution to child abuse. The Baby P case may have captured the public imagination and anger, but it is only the latest of what is an all too common incident. In the last 40 years hundreds of children have been beaten, starved, burned, suffocated, poisoned, shaken, strangled or stabbed to death by their parents according to the NSPCC. The charity's director Mary Marsh speaking to the BBC in 2002, said that while the "vast majority" of children were well looked after at home “the level of child abuse killings in this country is a national disgrace”. In 2007 the number of children who died at the hands of their parents rose to 33 from the previous years figure of 24
[Guardian]. The statistics do not reflect the numbers of those who survived their abuse, nor do they reveal the causes. The case of Baby P is yet another grim statistic. But the hysteria surrounding the case may finally spurn the government into taking some affirmative action [Sky News - timeline].

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