The tragic murder of Ellie Butler and the circumstances surrounding her death has justifiably led to much public shock and anger.
Many, including myself, have asked how a six-year-old child, seemingly happily living with her grandparents, could be returned to a father with a long history of convictions for violence – despite objections from police, social services and the maternal grandparents. Just under a year after being passed into the care of Ben Butler and Jenny Gray, little Ellie was beaten to death.
The process under which this happened, and the way in which this case was handled, is troubling – particularly given the father’s history of violence and aggression and the evasion of engagement with local agencies by both parents. All of these should have been considered and given weight in the decision to award custody.
We need to look at new ways in which legal judgements that may have contributed to a child being killed can be scrutinised and lessons can be learnt. Any reform of the court or review process will, of course, have to consider the need for judicial independence.
Ellie’s wishes and voice appear to have been lost, while crucial decisions – including who should be responsible for her care – were taking place all around her.
It emerged that Ellie had said she wanted to stay with her maternal grandparents before she was handed back to the care of a father who would ultimately kill her. It also seems she was deeply worried at the prospect of living with her father and mother again, as a bitter custody battle raged.
The review also states that Ellie asked to speak to the judge in the case but this request was not granted.
As Children’s Commissioner, all too often, I hear from children and young people who don’t feel they are involved in the decisions that are made about them, including where and with whom they will live. “Nobody asked me what I thought of the decisions made, or if I felt comfortable” is a common refrain.
Children and young people often say that they feel invisible when decisions about their safety and wellbeing are made. Sadly, when professionals don’t properly listen to vulnerable children, opportunities to protect them can be missed and children can quickly be exposed to harm.
Ellie had a voice which should have been listened to more closely. Children’s voices and perspectives need to be heard and be a central part of any process that significantly affects them – whether this relates to family court judgments, a change of local or national policy or the commissioning of key services.
Adults must not shy away from listening to children and taking their views on board – we may not always agree with them but must consider them. Ultimately, children’s unique experiences and views are vital in measuring the success or failure of important decisions.