Like many, I was shocked and saddened by the horrendous murder of Leiland-James Corkill, by those who should have loved and cared for him. My thoughts are with all of Leiland-James’ family, especially his mother Laura. The pictures of Leiland-James as a happy smiling baby remind us of the life he should have been able to live. Instead, he was killed in a violent and sadistic manner. It is absolutely right that the woman who did this to him is facing life in prison.
We cannot ignore the particular circumstances of Leiland-James’ death. Not only did the state fail to protect him from his abuser, they had actively placed him in her care after removing him from his birth mother. Removing a child from their parents, and then putting them up for adoption, as the Family Court did in Leiland-James’ case, is an incredibly serious process. The law is clear this must be a last resort. Therefore, it is right that a thorough and comprehensive review was undertaken, to examine what could have been done to protect Leiland-James.
The review into Leiland-James’ death is limited in scope. It does not consider whether Leiland-James should or could have stayed with his birth mother. Instead, it looks at the decision to place him with his prospective adopters. It shows how complicated these cases are, particularly when families (in this case the prospective adopters) set out to deceive services. There is no magic solution, and while there is a range of recommendations from the review, perhaps the strongest theme to come from it is the need, as ever, for social workers to be able to see children, understand them, follow their professional curiosity and instincts. A culture that supports this is more important than any process.
Implementing these changes, such that every child is seen and heard, is not easy. But when we are talking about the lives of children, no failure rate is acceptable. We must create the conditions where every decision is probed and explored, not by undermining social workers, but by empowering them to work collaboratively and openly with families. Social workers need to be simultaneously challenged and supported by their own management teams in order to make the best decisions in the most difficult circumstances. Individual failures happen in ineffective and poorly led systems.
We also have to face up to the fact that too few local authorities have created the right conditions. Cumbria County Council, where Leiland-James lived, has been deemed as ‘Requires Improvement’ by Ofsted for 5 years. One of the headline findings from the most recent monitoring visit in August 2021 was that “response to some families demonstrates that some social workers do not understand the complexities of relationships where domestic abuse is a feature.”
Cumbria is just one of many areas in England where children are not getting the quality of social care they are entitled to. This must change. I am resolute that we need immediate action to reform social work and social care practice across the country. We need social workers to have the right knowledge to identify risk and potential harm and we need to ensure that when major decisions about the future of a child are made, that their family are listened to and heard, and alternative care options (such as kinship care) are properly considered.
This year we have seen too many children killed either by their parents or those who should have been loving and caring for them. These deaths are incredibly hard to see, because of the cruelty of children abused and killed where they should be happiest and safest. We need to continue to be upset at these cases, because the worst thing would be for us to become immune. Whilst much of the care system is working hard and under pressure to support our young people, without major improvements to the way care is delivered we risk seeing more of these unimaginable tragedies in the years ahead.