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Learning from Baby P: The politics of blame, fear and denial in social work

In a seminar at the recent COMPASS Jobs Fair in London, Sharon Shoesmith discussed the climate of fear and blame which followed the tragic death of Baby P and its reverberations on social work today.


Learning from Baby P: The politics of blame, fear and denial in social work

Peter Connelly (known first in court proceedings as ‘Baby P’), died in 2007, aged 17 months. At the time of his death, Peter had more than fifty injuries and was known to be at risk following various encounters with health professionals, police and social workers. In 2008, his mother, Tracey Connelly, her partner Stephen Owen and his brother Jason Barker were all convicted of ‘causing or allowing the death of a child’. They were jailed in 2009.

A series of official inquiries and reports into Peter’s death followed. Haringey Council’s child protection service, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Metropolitan Police were, to varying degrees, criticised for failing to prevent Peter Connelly’s death. But most of the media coverage blamed individual social workers, a doctor and Sharon Shoesmith, Director of Education and Children’s Social Care Services at Haringey,

Ed Balls, as Labour’s Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and David Cameron, the Conservative Leader of the Opposition, were publicly critical. The Sun newspaper launched a ‘Beautiful Baby P; Campaign for Justice’ petition. This called for Sharon Shoesmith, Peter’s social workers, and a paediatrician at Great Ormond Street Hospital to be sacked, and published daily updates on the number of signatories. Facebook pages focussing on the subject had an estimated 1.6 million members.

In a seminar at the recent COMPASS Jobs Fair in London, Sharon Shoesmith discussed the climate of fear and blame which followed Peter’s death. She said that the experience and her subsequent research showed how ‘the perceived incompetence of social workers functions as a defence for society, [and] suggests that society has no discourse to manage such indigestible facts of child murder or torture.

‘Social workers are right there with their skills, their knowledge, their wisdom, their acts of kindness, compassion, courage, resilience, making a difference to thousands of lives. That's what you're doing every day. But my big issue with that is, why doesn't the public know that?

‘And in my book*, based on my PhD, I call it the cultural trope, meaning that the blaming of social workers is so embedded in our society and in our culture as a belief, and a truism, and a reality, that no one questions it.

‘No one was prepared to stand up and say, these social workers did not do this…There was no national figure out there who could go on Newsnight and say just wait a minute...

‘There was no one there then. And there's still no one there.’

She said that as organisations, the Metropolitan Police and Great Ormond Street Hospital engaged in very sophisticated blame avoidance to protect their reputations. ‘The Great Ormond Street paediatrician who saw Peter two days before he died was a locum, unqualified to work in the clinic where she saw Peter. She was standing in for an absent colleague and the systems around her, it emerged later, were seriously compromised.

‘A detailed referral letter from the social worker [was] sent four months before that appointment took place, but there was not a single record from 34 presentations to help her, including two stays in hospital.

‘She was really scapegoated…Great Ormond Street was able to hide behind their errors.

In the Metropolitan Police, ‘There was an allocated police officer, but that person left and there was a gap of four months [during which] no new police officer was allocated to the case. The day before Peter died, the police were in my offices telling Peter’s mother that they had no case against her. And he was dead the next morning -- but no one in the media ever reported that. Why not? Because it was so much easier to go with a simple narrative that the social worker was to blame. And [the press] have a relationship with the police. They need those close relationships with the police to get information.

‘No police officer was sanctioned.’ By contrast, ‘the sacking of me and the social workers became high profile cases.’ Ms Shoesmith was dismissed by Ed Balls during a televised press conference, a move which the courts later ruled illegal. ‘My union put up £100,000 within days, and I could go and actually hire some good lawyers…It took me three years to get my case to the appeal court. I was in a professional association, which funded the initial part of my case. Sadly, the social workers were not.’

At the time, ‘MPs said it must never happen again – just as they had in the aftermath of the death of Victoria Climbié in 2005, but still at least one child dies every week from abuse or neglect, according to the NSPCC’. Between the deaths of Victoria and Peter, 700 children had died of abuse or neglect in England and Wales.

Her subsequent research gave her deeper insights into the ways politician, the media and organisations responded to the Peter Connelly’s death.

‘The biggest shock to me came as I did my PhD… and in being able to go to court. I got a lot of material.’ She discovered that there were 17 drafts of the Ofsted report into the case. Revised versions were written by the head of Ofsted and other senior people, but not by any of the inspectors who have ever been to Haringey.

‘And make no mistake about the multi-agency table. It's awash with dynamics of power of racism, misogyny and class politics.

‘It was a tidal wave of lies, collusion, and lack of courage. David Cameron [then an MP and Leader of the Opposition] published some dreadful, dreadful pieces in London's Evening Standard and the Sun and so on, and wanted to take criminal proceedings against us [Ms Shoesmith and the sacked social workers]. So much so that we had to go to lawyers to see if we were going to have to face criminal proceedings. And of course we were at risk in London…and it was the Metropolitan Police that gave an intense level of false briefing to the media – particularly to the Sun.’

Little has changed to alter the focus. ‘This climate of fear and blame has negative consequences for other children at risk of harm, and for the social workers trying to protect them.’ In Parliament, in June this year, at an Education Select Committee, ‘One chief executive repeatedly talked about problems he has with resources, recruitment, maintaining and improving services, the impact of COVID, increasing difficulties monitoring and vulnerable children, and the role played by other agencies in particular, the police. The committee was told about death threats to social workers and social workers who have had to move – ‘but he was not heard…There's no engagement with a serious issue. And inevitably, there is the question that seeks certainty.

MPs on the committee asked the heads of children’s services to assure the committee that this will never happen again. ‘These MPs appear to have no knowledge that over 50 other children were victims of child homicide in the same year.’

Ms Shoesmith said that as individuals, social workers need to know their own strengths and vulnerabilities.

‘Each of you has a backstory that influenced you [to become a social worker]. It’s important that you know what those [strengths and] vulnerabilities are and how they influence you, and how you process them. What is then left, what feels like vulnerability actually becomes strength, I think you can turn to those things in distress, those experiences that no-one else has had.’

‘Hold them close, because it is who you are, when the going gets tough…You have to add in self-reflection… to try and deal with those other sides of your qualities that aren't so positive.

‘It’s important within your organisation to expect high quality supervision. And it's a two-way process. It's easy to fall into blame…replace the word ‘blame’ with understanding. Display empathy, be a team player, engage in dialogue -- don't become a management basher. There's a lot of that in social work.

‘Keep a notebook [for brief details and thoughts]. I know it's slightly controversial, because everything is online. I'm not suggesting that to replace what you do on your system…My notebooks went to the court. And they have a stronger importance than the witness statements which have been written two to three years after the event. And above all, I suppose the most important thing I want to say to you is for God's sake, join the professional association. Help build a stronger profession that protects its members, and help to find a strong, independent, credible, respected person to speak up for social workers on a national stage. You so desperately need to start a national conversation with the public about social work. Not in protest, but in education.’

*Learning From Baby P by Sharon Shoesmith published by Jessica Kingsley in Kindle and paperback, £12.99- £20:

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