The blame cascades down

Naive, bungling, easily fobbed off, hoodwinked, browbeaten,
conned. Whenever there is a child death inquiry, the popular press
reaches for its dictionary of contempt in a ritual display of
disgust at the “incompetence” of social workers. The words still
wound, despite their familiarity.

But the tone adopted by more than 30 child death inquiry reports
over nearly as many years must bear some of the responsibility for
press hysteria. The language is more temperate, the attention to
systems failures sometimes more rigorous, but the professionals in
the spotlight are usually the practitioners who had day-to-day
contact with the client. While senior managers and council members
have been criticised too, the mud has seldom stuck to them in the
way that it has to their staff on the front line.

The Victoria Climbi’ Report is plainly an attempt to break with
that tradition. Its author, Lord Laming, wags his finger at
practitioners for the poor quality of their work with Victoria,
then adds that the “greatest failure” rests with senior managers
and councillors whose task it was to ensure that services had the
resources to deliver effectively. Laming is scathing about the
bosses who snapped up better paid jobs elsewhere as junior staff
were suspended and faced disciplinary action.

The Haringey workers responsible for Victoria, Lisa Arthurworrey,
Carole Baptiste, and Angella Mairs, were all sacked. In contrast,
council chief executive Gurbux Singh began his short-lived reign at
the Commission for Racial Equality, social services director Mary
Richardson went to the director’s post in Hackney, while her
assistant Carol Wilson now heads up Waltham Forest social

It has always been the same, the difference being that past inquiry
reports have not had much to say about it. Diana Lees was the
social worker for Maria Colwell, killed by her stepfather in
Brighton in 1973, leading to the first of the child death inquiries
that together cast a giant shadow over social services’

Lees was severely censured by the inquiry for various failures to
supervise Maria when she returned to the parental home from foster
care. The social worker became a virtual outcast in her own
community. “I was told of Diana Lees walking through the streets of
Brighton and being spat on,” says Barnardo’s operations director
Chris Hanvey. “Metaphorically and literally, that’s happened in
almost every other inquiry since.”

The then social services director for East Sussex was Dennis Allen,
a respected veteran of the pre-Seebohm children’s departments with
a strong sense of duty. He told the inquiry, chaired by TG
Field-Fisher QC, that if anyone should carry the can, he should, as
head of the department. But his gesture was hardly acknowledged in
the final report, which was resolutely focused on the front

Olive Stevenson, a member of Field-Fisher’s team who wrote her own
minority report on the case, admits that if the inquiry had
happened now certain management issues “would have been probed more

She says: “The lawyer who chaired the inquiry was quite
uninterested in the organisational context and all he could do was
be angry and lay blame. I felt an enormous sense of frustration and
by the end of the inquiry we had ceased speaking to one

The 1985 Jasmine Beckford inquiry, chaired by another QC, Louis
Blom-Cooper, was more even-handed but still attended mainly to the
work of the practitioners involved with Jasmine, who had also been
killed by her stepfather. The day after the report’s publication
the two social workers, Gun Wahlstrom and Diane Dietmann, were
sacked by Brent Council along with its principal court officer,
William Thompson. Blom-Cooper said later that, in the inquiry
panel’s view, only Dietmann may have merited dismissal, but that
the panel had never been consulted by the council.

The social services director in Brent at the time was Val Howarth,
who is lightly criticised in the report, which makes no “positive
finding of blame” against her. “So far as the mismanagement of the
case goes, no harm ensued,” it says. Howarth suffered in the short
term – she was unable to take up the director’s post in
Cambridgeshire as planned – but recovered to become director of
ChildLine and is now one of Tony Blair’s “people’s peers”. Her
assistant director (family services), Dennis Simpson, went on to
become social services director in Southwark and headed the 1999
Joint Review of Haringey social services, published three months
before Victoria’s death.

Martin Ruddock was the social worker for Kimberley Carlile killed
in 1986, once again by her stepfather. He resigned from Greenwich
social services after being damned in the ensuing inquiry report.
His director, Martin Manby, stayed on, later moving to the
director’s post in Sheffield. Ruddock’s reputation was trashed in
the tabloids, the caption under his picture in the Daily
reading “he let her die”.

Ruddock felt let down by the inquiry and that it had made him a
scapegoat. He wrote afterwards: “The report hardly addressed the
essentially important issues that were evidenced in numerous of the
submissions to the inquiry – for example, overwork, understaffing
and lack of resources.”1 Social workers are still angry
about the way they are depicted in inquiry reports (see panel), but
it is to Lord Laming’s credit that he has at least begun to set the
balance right.

1 B Franklin and N Parton
(eds), Social Work, the Media and Public Relations,
Routledge, 1991

‘A no-win situation’ 

A former member of the children and families team at Haringey
social services, who worked alongside Lisa Arthurworrey, questions
why Lord Laming did not take evidence from more front-line staff.
The former worker has asked not to be named.

 “All of us from the North Tottenham office have moved on now,
but some of us keep in touch and after the  report appeared we felt
very angry at the way we were portrayed both by Lord Laming and by
the media.  People like myself and my colleagues who were in the
team at North Tottenham before and after Victoria’s death want to
know why were we not asked to give evidence at the inquiry. 

Staff on the ground have been slagged off for getting things
wrong but we had to do the job under impossible conditions or face
the sack. We were up against a complete lack of co-operation
between agencies. The place wasn’t being run properly. They set in
train a major reorganisation despite the fact we were chronically
overworked. Everyone was totally demoralised. 

Throughout the five years I worked for Haringey I saw racism,
violence against staff and bullying, including people threatened
with disciplinary action for speaking their mind. They tried to
turn us into automatons. When they talk about teamwork that’s a
euphemism for ‘toe the line’. Social work talks a lot about
empowerment – well that is a real joke. 

With Lisa, as a relatively junior member of staff, she was
placed in a situation where she was completely out of her depth.
She was ordered to do what she did. If she had refused she would
have been out on her ear. She was in a no-win situation – just like
the rest of us. 

Her former colleagues are furious that she has been banned from
working with children and placed on a register alongside

That is really stripping her of her dignity. It’s a disgrace and
a blot on the whole social work profession that it’s been allowed
to happen.  

When a child dies it’s always the social workers on the ground
that get disciplined. The managers earn the big bucks but won’t
take the fall when the going gets rough.  They go on to better paid
jobs while the rest of us are treated as cannon fodder – we are
just seen as a throwaway product. Yet there were some good workers
in that team – people you could really learn from. But that seems
to have been lost in all this.  

The people working there now earn more than £10,000 a year
more than we did so no wonder things are said to be better.  

But it’s time social work as a profession got itself in order
and stood up for its own people. It’s not just about new courses
and social work degrees. And Laming is on the wrong track putting
ministers in charge. They have  no idea of what we face, day in and
day out, and what a really difficult job we do. It’s about time
somebody listened to what we have to say.”

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