HC Deb 15 July 1980 vol 988 cc474-7W
Mr. Harry Ewing

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he intends to hold an inquiry under section 99 of the Children Act 1975 into the circumstances of the death of Tracy O'Day on 3 July 1979; and whether he will make a statement.

Mr. Younger

I received a detailed formal application on behalf of Mrs. Janice O'Day, the mother of Tracy O'Day, requesting that an inquiry should be held under section 99 of the Children Act 1975 into the facts and circumstances of her daughter's death for which the child's father was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. At the time of her death Tracy O'Day was subject to a supervision requirement made by a children's hearing under section 44(1)(a) of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. The application for an inquiry, which was supported by certain detailed documents, was based on a number of grounds, the two main grounds being related to the decision to return the child to her family without adequate inquiry and to the supervision undertaking after the child's return to her family.

To assist me in my consideration of the application, I have had available advice and information on relevant social work and health service matters from my own departmental officers and also reports and observations from the Central regional council, the local authority whose social work department was involved in the case.

I have given very careful consideration to the wide range of material which has been placed at my disposal. I have concluded that the circumstances in the case of Tracy O'Day are not such as would justify my causing an inquiry to be held under section 99 of the Children Act 1975; such an inquiry would not in my view serve any useful purpose.

I am informed that all the social work and Health Service professional interests concerned in the case had several opportunities to express their views at the case conferences and to agree upon the most appropriate action for the care of the child: it appears that all concerned were at the time acting in what was, in their professional judgment, in the best interests of the child and her family in making their recommendation to the children's hearing about the return of Tracy O'Day to her home. Those taking part in the case conferences were aware that a court appearance by the father was pending. The application submitted to me for an inquiry made particular reference to the absence of a psychiatric report on the father. I take the view that it would have been helpful to the case conferences, when they were considering plans for and assessing potential risks in returning the child to her family, if fuller information about the social history of Peter O'Day, the child's father, had been available to them. If a psychiatric report had been available, this could have provided some assessment of Peter O'Day's personality, medical history and behaviour. But whereas a court or the procurator fiscal may obtain a psychiatric report on a person charged with a criminal offence it is not open to a local authority or health board to require such a person to undergo psychiatric assessment. I have been informed by the Lord Advocate that he has instructed that, in all criminal cases involving a charge of injury or abuse to a child, the procurator fiscal should obtain a psychiatric report on the person so charged. I am considering with the Lord Advocate whether any guidance might be given on procedures for a social work department—and, through it, a case conference—involved with a child abuse case to seek information about a psychiatric assessment where this course of action would be appropriate.

The course of action for the care of the child following her return home called for regular and frequent visits to the home by the social worker and the health visitor. There was also, from 31 May 1979, a probation order in respect of Peter O'Day which required him to be supervised by the social work department. Social work supervision in the home is by its nature limited in its scope; but, from the information available, the supervision undertaken by the social work department after the child's return to her family appears, overall, to have been adequate and the frequency of contact by the social work department appears to have been at a reasonable level; throughout that period, the child was also being seen regularly at home or at a clinic by a health visitor. But the existence of a probation order for Peter O'Day indicated that he should be a focus of attention in his own right. I consider that the social work department should have foreseen that there could be difficulties for a social worker in carrying out what were, in effect, three simultaneous tasks by having to work not only with the family as a unit but also in respect of the safety of the child and separately in relation to the father's probation order.

I take the view that there is always scope for the improvement and development of any service, and I do not share the publicly reported view of the Central regional council that there were no lessons to be learnt from the case of Tracy O'Day. Examination of incidents of serious child abuse shows that each individual case is likely to contain some pointers, of varying degrees of significance, to areas in which improvement in social work or other professional practice and procedures may usefully be made. There are, for example, aspects of training in social work and other services to deal with child abuse cases which deserve renewed attention and my Department is examining these further in a number of ways. I have indicated to Central regional council that I expect it to ensure that appropriate training is available for staff likely to be engaged in cases of child abuse.

I have also asked my Department to give further consideration, in conjunction with local authorities, to the matter of how local authorities might, depending on the circumstances in each case, appropriately investigate cases of non-accidental injury to a child for whom the authority had some responsibility under the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968.

More generally, I fully appreciate the public concern which has been expressed about child abuse matters, particularly in the light of the death of Tracy O'Day and other cases which have recently been brought to my attention. When I have completed my present consideration of some other matters concerning child abuse, I intend to examine ways in which we in central Government might give further assistance to local authorities, health boards and other agencies involved in child abuse cases in their efforts to reduce the incidence of child abuse and to do all that is humanly possible to try to prevent such tragic cases occurring.

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