Khyra died for want of a single phone call

It is a scandal that six children in modern Britain can simply disappear from the neighbours’ sight without any comment.

There cannot be many public servants feeling as miserable this weekend as Gordon Brown. However, there are probably more than a few among the employees of Birmingham social services. They are being held responsible by the public, rightly or wrongly, for the death of Khyra Ishaq, a girl of seven, who was found emaciated and beyond help in her mother’s house in Handsworth; an ambulance crew was horrified to discover her on May 17, starving on mattresses on the floor in a room with two sisters and three brothers, all aged between four and 12. They were taken to hospital, under an emergency order, where Khyra died. Her siblings were taken into care and her mother, Angela Gordon, and stepfather, Junaid Abuhamza, have been charged with neglect.

If the facts reported last week are correct, Birmingham social services appear to be at fault. Gordon had taken the six children out of school about 10 weeks ago. There was some talk of home schooling and some of bullying. One pupil’s parents said Khyra and her sisters did not like wearing the Muslim headdress at school – her mother is a recent convert to Islam. Hardly anybody had seen the children since.

Whatever the reason, the taking of six children out of school, or one child for that matter, is – or is supposed to be – of serious concern to social services, whose duty it is to establish what has happened to those children and whether they are being educated. You have only to remember the name Victoria Climbié to understand how crucially important this duty is.

For a welfare-dependent mother of six young children, such as Gordon, to stop sending her children to school is – or ought to be – an unmistakable alarm signal. Besides, all home schooling is supposed to be supervised by council workers. Yet according to Khalid Mahmood, the local MP, an educational support worker visited Gordon’s house once but failed to get in and it seems that, despite the reforms after Climbié’s death, Birmingham social services did nothing further about the family or the children’s schooling.

The council has refused to comment and the matter is now sub judice. The question of how far social services may be to blame for Khyra’s death will have to wait. However, a heavy weight of responsibility lies with the so-called community, which is to say with Khyra’s family’s neighbours and relatives. Behind their stories to the media of shock and sympathy lies another, darker one of indifference. Social services cannot be watching us all the time, nor would we want them to be. And mistakes will always happen. Whether we like it or not, a great responsibility for people’s children lies, or ought to lie, not with the council but with their neighbours – with us.

In a street of small terraced houses with back gardens it is almost incredible that six children should in effect disappear from the neighbours’ sight without any comment from them, but that is what seems to have happened. Various people have said they had not seen the children for several weeks. Shabir Mohammed, whose mother lives next door, said he had not seen anyone at the house for the past few months. He may have thought the family had moved.

However, others could not have thought so. Several believed that the children (whom they had not seen) were so hungry that they were stealing bread; a Polish woman living nearby said Khyra’s mother had recently accused her of giving the children bread. “The mother was very angry,” she said. “I told her nobody had given her anything. I can only think this poor girl had gone into our back garden and taken bread from the bird table.” This woman at least could not have supposed the family had left the street. Yet almost nobody saw them after their last day at school 10 weeks ago.

Khyra’s aunt Valerie, her father’s sister, said she had not seen the children since last year, five months ago. She had been to the house four times since then to try to see them but each time had failed to get a reply. I don’t know at what intervals she came – there was something unsatisfactory about her interview with the BBC and she described herself as “curious” – but she, too, appeared to think the family was still there. Of her brother, Khyra’s father, there are no reports.

Some of these people, you might imagine, would have wondered what had happened to these six children, once so often seen on the street. Some of the children they played with might have asked their parents why they didn’t come out any more. Someone might have cared enough about them or their parents to be interested in whether they had moved away. Some of these people might have wondered whether something was wrong. Or perhaps people in this street are so indifferent to each other, so unconnected by any ties of culture, so mobile, so dysfunctional and so asocial as not in any sense to form a community. In any case, either they didn’t know and didn’t care to wonder, or else they did wonder but didn’t care to say anything.

I don’t know which explanation is more depressing, but at least something can be done about the second. It is understandable that people hesitate to rat on their neighbours and report them to the social. For one thing, people in failed communities are often afraid of the authorities. Their natural instinct is to avoid them at all times. A word to social workers about the screaming kiddies next door might well lead to unwelcome questions.

Then there is the problem that the neighbours might go ballistic if they discovered that you had been interfering and might well decide to sort you out. Coming between a parent and child arouses the most savage emotions.

However, there is for once a simple solution. Neighbours who suspect that children are being abused need not call down the might of social services. They can anonymously ring one of the charities that deal with child abuse and get some advice. If necessary the charity could investigate independently and, what’s more, protect the whistleblower. Some obvious choices would be Barnardo’s or the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children or the Children’s Society. A call like this might have saved Khyra Ishaq.