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I don’t know about you but I’ve been unable to stop thinking about the tragic case of Awaab Ishak. Awaab was two years old when he died in December 2020 from a respiratory condition brought about by prolonged exposure to mould in his family’s one-bedroom flat.

His father had complained on several occasions to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing about the mould and yet the problem persisted.

A health visitor also contacted RBH regarding the issue and an inspection found that there was mould in the kitchen, bathroom and a bedroom cupboard. When we consider the size of a one-bedroom flat, it is difficult to imagine how one might manage to avoid the mould. Of course, what we know about mould is that what we can see on walls and ceilings is only part of the problem. The effects of the mould had already started to affect little Awaab.

The coroner, giving her findings said:

‘How, in the UK in 2020, does a two-year-old child die from exposure to mould in his home?’

‘The tragic death of Awaab will and should be a defining moment for the housing sector in terms of increasing knowledge, increasing awareness and a deepening of understanding surrounding the issue of damp and mould.’

I have found myself thinking about this case for several reasons: firstly for the obvious reasons that this is a devastating case of a child losing their life for purely preventable reasons. Secondly, due to the combination of the rise in energy bills, the attempts many of us are making to try to keep our homes warm as cheaply as possible – as well as the recent cold weather – I have chatted with friends about dealing with the inevitable mould that has sprung up in our houses as we have avoided opening windows to let the precious heat out.

Thirdly, this phrase ‘defining moment’ has resounded with me. Awaab’s death is surely a defining moment for the housing sector but also, I would argue, within safeguarding in schools and childcare settings.

For many of us working within safeguarding, we see the effects of poverty (even long before the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis) on the children we work with. Inextricably linked with poverty, we have the housing crisis which leaves hardworking, loving families at the mercy of landlords or housing associations, even councils. 

Awaab’s health visitor clearly took their safeguarding responsibilities seriously and tried to resolve the issues. 

The risks facing Awaab were of course very much within his home and I would argue that he was certainly a child in need of protection. And yet, when we think of the categories under which a child may be placed on a Child Protection plan, he was neither neglected (by his family at least) nor abused. 

Dr Carlene Firmin and her team have, once again, led the way in which we consider safeguarding of children and young people. Years ago, Dr Firmin changed the way we looked at young people exploited by and affected by criminal and sexual exploitation. More recently, her team have formulated the framework and term: ‘contextual safeguarding’. This framework enables safeguarding professionals – and hopefully wider society – to consider the wider context of a child and to look at the other risks that might be facing them outside of their home and immediate family.

It is worth considering therefore, the contextual safeguarding risks that can face children and young people in their homes – not due to neglect, abuse or exploitation but due to such harms such as damp, mould, poor insulation, lack of security and lack of privacy to name a few.

This is something we have to keep in mind when we assess the risks facing the children we work with, especially our swiftly-increasing group of children in loving, caring families who are being squeezed by the impacts of poverty and inequality.

Returning to the issue of mould, I recently bought some anti-mould paint for the walls of my own home and was shocked at the almost-£40 price tag. For families struggling to put food on the table for their children, are they really expected to find £40 for paint? 

The only thing we can hope for, following the case of Awaab and his family is that this indeed proves to be a defining moment in how we protect children and families within their homes.