baby in incubator lucy letby trial result

How could she? How did she? Messages on the Trial and sentencing of Lucy Letby

How could she? How did she? Messages on the Trial and sentencing of Lucy Letby

Lessons for Modern Safeguarding Practice

It is late October 2022, a work day, approximately 10.15am and ninety plus Early Years Practitioners and Managers from a small prestigious Nursery Group are gathered. A young woman approximately Lucy Letby’s age is sharing her ideas about the possible motivations for Letby, to cause distress to such vulnerable babies, and it’s alleged to have killed several of them. The practitioner, a deeply reflective and intelligent woman, wonders about Letby’s psychological state, she refers to the fact that she is very skilled and it appears professionally devoted to her work. She refers to the apparent care she seemed to show the baby’s families and now begins to refer to Professional Boundaries with parents having been crossed – “why was she in contact with families on Facebook ?” Another practitioner in the room agrees and adds that the safeguards ….. the wider staff team and their confidence to whistle blow seems to be under-developed. “They were groomed by her “, she says, “beguiled by her almost hyper-professional presence ; she was always there, devoted to her work”. “She had the professional expertise, knowledge and opportunity” another practitioner adds. “The procedures and systems weren’t in place were they ?” a practitioner adds “we’d go to the LADO, wouldn’t we ?”

These practitioners had entered into their preparation assignment for our training day together with enthusiasm. They arrived eager to share their findings – they’d not only followed the Lucy Letby Trial during its early weeks, but had studied not one but several Child Practice Safeguarding Reviews on Vanessa George, Paul Wilson, Sophie Elms … they drew links between each, referring to the early life experiences of these practitioners, hypothesising on the interaction with the people they met and the positions of power that they found themselves in … the opportunity.

Comparison was made to Harold Shipman, the GP connected to the untimely deaths of a number of elderly patients, many who named him as a beneficiary in their wills. Someone in the room made some links between Shipman’s preoccupation with certain drugs in the early stages of his medical training and a status that comes from being very well informed and charismatic ; then looped it back to Letby.

Everyone came across as ‘grown-up’ in this organisation. This is exceptional when the critical gaze is cast upon us. A more usual reaction is to be defensive. They are very well-informed about their professional duties, their Professional Code of Conduct and Behaviour is regularly reviewed by the practitioner team, the Whistle blowing duty is understood and the Director and all managers have instilled a confidence to take the matter outside of the organisation if anyone believes that concerns have not been taken seriously.

It is normal for any member of the Leadership Teams or the Director to consult with their respective Local Authority Designated Officers (LADO), if they believe that a Professional is Abusing their Position of Trust.

So how come this didn’t seem to happen in the Countess of Chester Hospital ? Were the Consultants raising their concerns confident in their safeguarding duties ? When they believed that they were being silenced by Senior Managers, whose preoccupation appeared to be protecting the reputation of the Hospital Trust, did they contact their Senior Safeguarding Lead ? Were they aware that the threshold for investigating a professional who (appears) to have abused their position of trust had been met ? This being :

  • Behaved in a way that has harmed a child, or may have harmed a child and/or
  • Possibly committed a criminal offence against or related to a child, and/or
  • Behaved towards a child or children in a way that indicates he or she may pose a risk of harm to children, and/or
  • Behaved or may have behaved in a way that indicates they may not be suitable to work with children

Practitioners within the Nursery Group referred to have the benefit of well-informed leaders who know that a suspicion that a professional may be harming a child IS a safeguarding matter. They have worked hard at instilling this with the whole team, including with their Trustee Body. They have actively worked on suspending their own natural tendencies to feel, think or say “Oh, they could not, or just wouldn’t do that”.

The Lovely Lucy effect

The ‘Lovely Lucy’ effect is distracting. In this pattern of thinking we are so convinced that we know this person, they just could not have done this horrible thing. We might hear ourselves say “I know them, they really could not have done that”. The truth is we always project who and how it is we want to be known by others ; the ‘out of character’ element is difficult for us to square. It’s one of the biggest obstacles in safeguarding, particularly in child protection. What seems like going against our very instinct in human behaviour is exactly what we need to cultivate in ourselves as professionals.

We need to suspend our feelings and develop our capacity for objectivity.

We need to adopt a truly objective overview on ourselves, on our team, on our professional relationships with each other and the way that we employ policy and procedures as our consistent everyday practice.

Reflect a moment and consider whether you are satisfied with all of these aspects in your workplace, or, is it time to refresh and update ?

We have both Designated Lead Person Induction and Refresher training and Safer Recruitment training available.

Or perhaps like the Nursery Group, you would like to commission something bespoke. Contact us to discuss what you’re looking for.

Please also feel free to share this blog piece more widely. I would appreciate if you would remember to credit the source. We have a great deal of work to do in our collective safeguarding capacity, so let’s help inform that shift together.

I look forward to seeing you, perhaps during this term

Catherine Rushforth

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