2013 in review: Looking for light in the darkness of social affairs

I was asked last week by a group of school children how I managed to cover so much misery without getting depressed - and looking back over this year I can see why they felt compelled to ask me that question.

Daniel Pelka was tortured and murdered by his mother and step-father. Credit: West Midlands Police

The deaths of Daniel Pelka, Hamza Khan and Keanu Williams all highlighted weaknesses in our child protection system, and for those thoughtful enough to see beyond that, failures in the wider community too.

For perhaps it isn’t only the professionals who should notice the children in need amongst us.

The continuing failures of Birmingham Social Services are further evidence of system under enormous pressure.

Hamza Khan's mother was jailed for 15 years for her son's manslaughter. Credit: Police handout.

The Goverment pointed to a failure of culture and low expectations in child protection in general, and stepped in to openly criticise the Serious case Review by Bradford Social Services into the lack of intervention in the Hamza Khan case.

Social workers are fed up with the “blame culture” which is encouraged in the media and wider public.

They point out how their workload has never been higher and their resources are shrinking.

Isabella Trowler was appointed in a bid to improve standards in social work. Credit: ITV News

The appointment of Isabelle Trowler as Chief Social worker for Children and Families is perhaps an indication of the Government’s determination to improve standards, but many of those feeling the pressure on the ground aren’t convinced by the direction of all of the Government’s reforms.

Watch out early next year as Ofsted passes judgment on Birmingham Social Services department and the government-backed Front Line training scheme for new social workers starts in earnest.

Also watch for the Children and Families Bill (Spring 2014), which is also generating concerns amongst some campaigners because of the emphasis it places on speeded-up adoption ahead of other options for children in need.

The NHS complaints system also made several appearances in our coverage this year as families contributed to a Government review of the process, which concluded it was “not for purpose”.

We heard heartbreaking stories from families whose relatives had suffered from both poor treatment and then apparent cover-up. MP Ann Clywd’s review promises to bring change.

Watch out in 2014, as Ms Clywd has promised to review what is indeed delivered, leaving some to dub her the Terminator for her vow that she “will be back”.

Remploy, the specialist employer for disabled people, closed this year, to the heartbreak of many. Credit: PA Wire

I was also able to record British social history as the last of the Remploy factories close in Wrexham in the autumn.

For many at the factory, it was a family as well as a place of work. But changing attitudes and an ageing workforce bought the curtain down on a once thriving community in South Wales.

I recently learnt that less than a half of those who worked there have found new jobs.

Most people with disabilities prefer to work alongside able-bodied colleagues now rather than in what many regard as “silos” for the disabled. But for those who have known nothing else it was heartbreaking to lose their security, jobs and close-knit supportive community at a stroke in the name of progress.

The threat posed by online communities to children was brought into stark focus this year. Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Our changing world meant that much attention has been given to the threats posed by the internet this year, with the Government leading the charge to do more to protect children from internet pornography, as well as to prevent adults accessing child abuse images.

After some stop-start “summits”, Google and Microsoft came up with some solutions to clean up searches and switch on adult features on family computers.

Concerns about the sexualisation of children re-surfaced when the England’s Children’s Commissioner’s report was published linking a diet of pornography with a rise in children abusing children sexually in groups and gangs.

The argument about how austerity and the recession are impacting the poorest amongst us continued all year with charities claiming that those they represent are being hit the hardest.

Finally, not exactly social affairs but no more cheerful, I was personally saddened to return to Bosnia and learn of the discovery of a mass grave containing the bodies of hundreds of murdered Bosnian civilians from the 1992 war.

I was part of the team that had visited the area at the height of what we now know for certain was a massacre.

It was tragic to return some 22 years later to see the ground yielding up its secrets and ghosts being laid to rest.

Evidence from the crime scene will be used in the trial of General Mladic in The Hague.

So through all this unhappiness and injustice, how do I keep my hope for a better world alive?

I told the schoolchildren who asked about how I cope that I always look for the light in the darkness; there is always good to be found amongst the bad, and I take that away with me.

The rookie community police officer who eventually found the body of Hamza Khan in his mother’s house, and saved the other children from her neglect; or the Ann Clwyds of this world who work tirelessly to expose failure.

I also savour the moments when those in power do improve their services as Google were this year. They are the moments that keep me going; the moments that make the sadness we cover worthwhile.

Happy New Year.