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In 2014, Shanay Walker died at the age of seven, in what a coroner has described as "just about the worst case of child cruelty it's possible to imagine".  Shanay's aunt was subsequently jailed. 

An inquest into Shanay's death was held in March this year and was followed by a Serious Case Review in April.  Both were highly critical of Shanay's school, identifying the following failings in its approach: 

  • At least 10 safeguarding referrals were made about Shanay by teachers at her school.  However, none of these concerns were passed on to the relevant authorities.
  • Certain members of staff appeared to have a fixed view that this was not a safeguarding matter.  Other staff did not feel they could challenge this or the lack of action being taken about concerns raised. 
  • Shanay's aunt dominated and discredited school staff, with allegations of poor communication or unfair targeting.  The school too readily accepted the aunt's version of events: that Shanay's injuries were as a result of self-harm or accident.
  • Staff reported that they were unclear whether they could record or share "soft" information about Shanay, such as the fact she looked "downcast when with her aunt" or her aunt's negative attitude towards her.
  • The school's child safeguarding arrangements were criticised as being "chaotic".  In particular, there were no established processes for recording concerns and no objective management oversight or supervision over safeguarding issues.

Although this case concerned a school, the lessons which can be learned from its failings and missed opportunities are relevant to all organisations which work with children, both in the UK and abroad.  The key points to take away are:

  1. Organisations should remind staff that they all have a responsibility to identify children suffering or likely to suffer significant harm and to alert others to their concerns.  Staff should expressly be made aware that they can report concerns about a child's safety directly to the Local Authority when they feel they are not being listened to. 
  2. Organisations should routinely follow up referrals to children's social care in writing (with details of all concerns recorded by staff) and seek feedback that action is being taken.  
  3. Information which suggests that a child has self-harmed should be taken very seriously, particularly in primary age children where self-harm is rare.  Staff should consider whether abuse is in fact causing the child to self-harm or whether the carer/child could be excusing non-accidental injuries as self-inflicted.  
  4. Staff should receive regular training on child safeguarding and their organisation's safeguarding procedure.  As part of this, it is advisable to remind staff about the NICE guidance on spotting maltreatment in children. 
  5. Staff should be made aware of the critical importance of observing the carer / child relationship, including how a child appears when discussing concerns in front of a carer.  Any concerns should be recorded and shared.
  6. Safeguarding teams should give consideration as to how "soft" (i.e. not purely factual) information that raises concerns about a child's welfare and wellbeing is recorded and reviewed. 
  7. Staff should display "professional scepticism and curiosity" about incidents relating to child safety.  One of the key features of the Shanay Walker case is the extent to which a number of professionals formed a fixed view that this was not a safeguarding case and, despite reports to the contrary, did not change their mind.  To try to counter this, organisations should adopt a robust procedure of management oversight and supervision in potential safeguarding cases, to allow staff to critically reflect on their views, explore the potential factors which might be influencing them and help prevent one side of a story from being accepted too readily.
  8. Inconsistencies in stories told by children (or, as in Shanay's case, where a child later changes their story or says they have lied) should be explored further.  Particularly in the case of a young child, consideration should be given as to the reason for a lie and whether the child might be afraid or have been told not to tell the truth.

Although rare, this case sadly highlights what can happen when safeguarding procedures aren't followed or when safeguarding professionals uncritically accept a particular version of events.  The school in question has said that safeguarding children is now at the "heart" of the school's objectives and, if these types of cases stand any chance of being avoided, it is imperative that all organisations that work with children adopt the same approach.

With thanks to Susan Harrison, Group Head of Safeguarding at Cognita Schools, for her initial summary of this case.

If you require further information on anything covered in this briefing please contact Amy Wren ([email protected]; or 020 3375 7627), David Smellie ([email protected]), or your usual contact at the firm on 020 3375 7000. Further information can also be found on the Schools and Child Protection pages of our website.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, October 2016

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