It’s been a year since the Peter Connelly case and the past 12 months in children’s services have been tumultuous, to say the least. With the storm settling somewhat, Community Care asks a range of professionals in the sector what they believe is the most significant development since the Haringey scandal.
The biggest change identified by many professionals has been the increase in referrals to children’s services since the case came to light. Family courts body Cafcass received almost 50% more applications for section 31 care and supervision orders in the second quarter of 2009-10 than in the same period last year, and in June 2009 reported a record 774. Many expressed concerns about the effect of this pressure on the quality of practice.
The increase in referrals could lead to children being overlooked after their initial placements in foster care, says John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at the British Association of Adoption and Fostering.
“It’s created a huge strain on the system and there’s a real concern about the consequences for the children within it,” he says. “Within fostering, when the system is under pressure it’s easy to breathe a sigh of relief when a placement is found for a child and then move onto the next task. People don’t necessarily make a long-term plan for that child because of their heavy workload.”
Moira Murray, safeguarding co-ordinator at The Children’s Society, echoes Simmonds: “The real question is whether this rise is justified or whether it is at the expense of preventive work for individual children. The lessons of baby Peter were known as long ago as 1973, as a result of the inquiry following the death of seven-year-old Maria Colwell [which found a lack of joined-up working between agencies involved in the case]. Our major concerns now are that Cafcass is being overwhelmed and the voice of the child is being lost.”
Elizabeth Hall, former practitioner and current head of safeguarding at Cafcass, however, has seen the positive side of the referrals increase. In the weeks following the Peter Connelly case, Cafcass conducted research to gauge the situation through the eyes of court guardians. Hall was pleased with the findings.
“We found that while many cases were a reaction to baby Peter, we did not find any in which the guardian didn’t think it should go to court,” she says. “To me that demonstrates that those children are in need of services and the system did not merely overreact. The main result of baby Peter was that for government, down to local authorities, down to Cafcass, it’s been a wake-up to the sheer number of children who are in need.”
The case’s effect on social workers has gone beyond practice. Over the past year, the work of children’s services’ teams has generated a huge number of headlines, subjecting social workers to high levels of scrutiny. The result has not always been pleasant.
“This has been social work’s annus horribilis,” says Tim Loughton, shadow minister for children. “We have seen our hard-working professionals demoralised even further, a huge rise in care proceedings made in a climate of fear, and even more regulation added to the bureaucratic mountain.”
Kerie Anne, a social worker speaking in her capacity as a Unison steward for a children’s services directorate, says the impact on the frontline has been significant.
“For me, the biggest development has been the very public devaluing of social work generally as a profession,” she says. “This had the effect, almost overnight, of rendering invisible the good work done by skilled and dedicated social workers all over the country, with the upshot being a crisis of morale and a deep sense of sadness among many sections of the profession.
“I started off my career as a child protection social worker, but the climate of fear that surrounds this field means I wouldn’t consider it now under any circumstances.”
Hall says some social workers suffered verbal abuse from service users following the Haringey scandal.
“I know of social workers as far away as Sunderland who suffered abuse when knocking on doors in the weeks following baby Peter. What the baby Peter case has to do with anyone trying to do their job in Sunderland I don’t know.”
Not every social worker has faced flak, however. Laura McLean, a children and families social worker in Renfrew, says in her experience, service users and even politicians have been relatively sympathetic.
“A lot of the families I work with spoke of their distress at what happened to Peter, but expressed the view that the people responsible for his death were his mother and her partner,” she says. “In Scotland we’ve been fortunate in that our politicians have been much more supportive than their counterparts in England. The Scottish government appears more realistic in recognising the challenges faced by social workers and have publicly stated their support.”
Some are optimistic that the sector can learn some useful lessons from this dark time. Sue Berelowitz, chief executive of the children commissioner’s 11 Million organisation, is hopeful for the sector.
“It’s taken something terrible for everybody to just stop and look at social work very carefully,” she says. “But for the first time in quite a long time, I feel optimistic for social work. Following the Peter Connelly case, there’s a clear effort by government and hopefully the social work profession itself not to be defensive and instead use this as an opportunity to take the profession to a new level. It’s a horrible way for it to come about, but at least something good has come from the death of Peter Connelly.”
Timeline of a tragedy: Baby P, one year on
1 March: Peter born to Tracey Connelly. Identity of father cannot be revealed.
November: Connelly’s partner Steven Barker moves in.
December: Connelly arrested after bruises spotted on Peter’s face and chest by a GP.2007
January: Connelly released and Peter returned home.
February: Former social worker Nevres Kemal alerts DH to her worries about child protection in Haringey.
April: Peter is admitted to North Middlesex hospital with minor injuries
1 April: Ofsted takes over responsibility for inspecting children’s services from the CSCI.
May: After seeing marks on Peter’s face, a social worker sends the toddler to North Middlesex hospital where bruises and scratches are found. Connelly is re-arrested.
June: Barker’s brother, Jason Owen, moves into the home.
30 July: Injuries to Peter’s face and hands are missed by a social worker.
1 August: Peter is examined at a child development clinic.
2 August: Police tell Connelly she will not be prosecuted.
3 August: Peter is found dead in his cot.
1 November: Owen and Barker are found guilty of causing Peter’s death. Connelly had pleaded guilty to the same charge. Lord Laming commissioned to review progress on his recommendations after Victoria Climbié’s death.
13 November: Children’s secretary Ed Balls orders a joint area review (JAR) of safeguarding in Haringey.
1 December: Balls states the joint area review reveals a catalogue of safeguarding failings in Haringey. Haringey children’s services leader George Meehan and cabinet member for children and young people Liz Santry resign. Sharon Shoesmith is removed as the council’s director of children’s services.
8 December: Shoesmith is sacked by a panel of councillors.
19 February: Dr Jerome Ikwueke, a GP who saw Peter more than a dozen times, is suspended by the General Medical Council.
9 March: Shoesmith lodges an employment tribunal claim against Haringey Council.
15 March: A leaked report into Peter’s death suggests there were further missed opportunities to save him from abuse.
29 April: Haringey Council dismisses a social worker and three managers for failings in the care of Peter.
1 May: Barker is convicted of raping a two-year-old girl. The crime came to light after he was arrested over Peter’s death.
May: Peter’s name is revealed at the request of his family.
13 May: The NHS is criticised by the Care Quality Commission for failing in Peter’s care.
22 May: Connelly gets an indefinite jail term with a minimum five years for her part in her son’s death. Barker is jailed for life with a minimum of 10 years for raping the two-year-old and 12 years to run concurrently over his role in Peter’s death. Owen gets an indefinite sentence with a minimum term of three years.
3 July: Inspectors say Haringey has only made limited progress in improving.
11 August: Connelly and Barker are named for the first time after the expiry of a court order.
October: Judicial review proceedings issued on behalf of Shoesmith against Ofsted, Ed Balls and Haringey Council. October: Connelly decides against going through with an appeal to her sentence. Owen’s appeal is approved.