‘I was determined to go back to social work, to prove he hadn’t ruined my career’

In October 2006, Claire Selwood was stabbed by the father of a child on her caseload. Here, she describes what happened after the attack

Claire Selwood
Claire Selwood (photographed by Michelle Fowler)

When Claire Selwood first met Graham Burton, the man who stabbed her six times and left her for dead, she had no idea of the threat he posed. She describes him as a “shadowy figure”, who was rarely present when she visited his home. “I thought he was odd, but I had no reason to believe I was in immediate danger.”

Selwood first encountered Burton in 2006, when she was allocated as the social worker for one of his three daughters. The case had already been deemed too complex for a less experienced colleague; Selwood had qualified in 2002 after around 20 years’ experience in the voluntary sector and was by then a senior practitioner in Durham council’s child protection service.

“The family lived in an atmosphere of fear, controlled mainly by the father, but also the mother. The children were led to believe that anyone outside the family circle was dangerous,” explains Selwood. Both parents were “very avoidant” and would simply move away if they thought social workers or other professionals were interfering in their children’s lives.

There were a number of other factors that made the daughter’s case more complex, many of which cannot be reported for legal reasons. She had been taken out of school years earlier and part of Selwood’s role was to get her back into the system. It was agreed in court that the girl should be placed in a specialist school. “The family really weren’t happy that she was out of their control,” says Selwood. By the time Selwood turned up to a meeting to review the placement in October 2006, tensions were running high – but she had no idea of the danger she was in.

Two days before the meeting, Selwood happened upon a fax sent to the admin worker shared between her team and the council’s mental health workers. On the fax was a check list for Burton’s admission to local psychiatric hospital Cherry Knowles. “I didn’t even know he had been admitted,” says Selwood.

She recounts seeing a section referring to “threats of hostility” or words to that effect, which was ticked. Concerned, she sought out the community psychiatric nurse (CPN) and asked her for an explanation. She recalls the CPN saying: “Oh, you’re the one he doesn’t like.” Yet the alarms bells were not ringing loudly. There was no mention of direct threats and, as Selwood puts it, “in child protection, you’re used to not being liked”.

She requested more information and the CPN said she’d ask if Selwood could take part in a ward round at the hospital on the Wednesday. What happened next would later be described by an independent panel as a “complete failure” on the part of the health professionals to warn Selwood of the risk to her safety, leading to “catastrophic results”. The hospital staff put the idea of Selwood attending the ward round to Burton and he said if he saw her, he would kill her on the spot.

This threat was never passed on to Selwood. Nor was she informed that Burton had admitted to having feelings of inner rage; that he had been violent towards others in the past.

Two days later, Selwood walked into the review meeting at Burton’s daughter’s school. She was surprised to see Burton there. “I thought he was in Cherry Knowle,” she says, “but I didn’t think anything of it.” She followed the educational psychologist into the room and the last thing she remembers is feeling the final blow, when Burton thrust the knife into her back. Then she fell to the floor.

The road to recovery

Burton was sentenced in June 2007 to a minimum of 11 years and eight months in prison after being found guilty of attempted murder at Newcastle Crown Court. In 2010, an independent investigation panel commissioned to look into the case by the North East Strategic Health Authority concluded that “the complete failure of those health professionals to communicate the fact that threats had been made directly towards Selwood denied Durham council’s children’s social care [department] the opportunity to take steps to protect their employee, and Selwood was denied the opportunity to protect herself, with catastrophic results”.

For Selwood, a long process of recovery had begun. She was in hospital for a month, before discharging herself so she could be at home with her three young children. Her mobility was severely impaired. “I could just about walk with a stick,” she says.

Durham council paid for a nursing assistant to help with her young son, a cleaner and some private psychological treatment. Selwood did not immediately return to work: “I didn’t feel like I could.” However, after two years, the council said it could no longer offer her full pay. “I was a single parent, so I had to earn a living,” she says, so she returned to social work in September 2009. “I did some adoption work and bit and pieces, but by the December, I decided to go back into child protection. It was what I was comfortable with, what I knew. And I was determined to do it, to prove that he hadn’t ended my career, because it was a huge part of my life. I loved that job. It did become a bit of a crusade – I had to prove I could hack it.”

Battling for compensation

Meanwhile, following the independent review, Selwood initiated a compensation claim against her employer and the two mental health trusts responsible for Graham Burton’s psychiatric care both in Cherry Knowles and in the community. She says Unison and Thompson Solicitors were “fantastic”, supporting her through the entire claim.

The case against the trusts was dismissed by Newcastle County Court on the grounds they did not owe Selwood a duty of care, but in July 2011 last year she was given leave by the High Court to appeal. In 2012, the Court of Appeal accepted it was arguable that the two trusts did owe her a duty of care based on their responsibilities under an agreed protocol.

She continued the claim and, last week, reached an out-of-court settlement of an undisclosed sum. “In a way, I would have preferred to go to court and hopefully see them admit liability,” says Selwood, “but I couldn’t go on any longer”.

By this time, the litigation had taken a toll on Selwood’s mental health. She had bounced around from position to position, first at Durham council and then at Northumberland and Newcastle, never feeling fully supported or able to stay in full time child protection work. “I realised my career had become untenable,” she says with a sigh. “It was always hanging over me; I felt like my career was all about this attack – it wasn’t about me being a good social worker or good manager.” She went on long term sick leave from Newcastle in August 2013 and was finally granted early retirement on the grounds of ill health in December. “This is the sum total of my career now,” she says.

Social workers still at risk

Durham council says it has worked with partner agencies to significantly improve risk management, information-sharing and communication since the attack. Both trusts have apologised to Selwood and improved their services based on learning from internal reviews and the independent inquiry.

But Selwood says this isn’t enough. “The communication between adults and children’s services [across the country] is still dire; people are bound up in red tape. There needs to be far more joint training and working.” She adds that this must be accompanied by a fundamental shift in the way social work services are delivered. “More social workers, less bureaucracy, less paperwork, much smaller caseloads and good quality risk assessments.

“When a referral comes in, there needs to be a risk assessment not just for the child, but about the worker and what needs to happen before they can go out and visit this family at home. The safety of social workers is not even on the page, let alone at the top of the page.”

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6 Responses to ‘I was determined to go back to social work, to prove he hadn’t ruined my career’

  1. Liz April 2, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

    Damn right they had a duty of care! She could have been killed and also her colleague or anyone who was there at the time! Why do we respect these people?? Social work would become such an easier task over night – especially in child protection services if these derranged, out of control and essentially insecure individuals were put away somewhere and rehabilitated in some way, instead of being let to return home and look after children! I’m all for care and making sure people’s needs are met but then there are just some who are damaged and will always be so.

  2. Linda Dodds April 4, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    I am so saddened to hear that Claire has had to give up the profession she loved; I worked with Claire when she was a student social worker and she was a talented, committed professional. I can’t believe that there could have ever been doubts about the trusts having a duty of care! Working in the Child Protection field inevitably involves an element of risk and most of us have been threatened or assaulted at some point. How can we take steps to ensure that we have appropriate protective plans in place if we aren’t informed of a specific risk to a named individual? Assessing risk to staff is surely as important as assessing risk to children and both need open sharing of all relevant information.

    Claire almost lost her life in an incident that could, and should, have been prevented.

    • Andy Townsend April 4, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

      I feel that this article and unfortunate incident highlights the importance of collaborative practise that is effective; in this case it was not. This is a clear example of the improvement that needs to be made in this area. As health and social care professionals it is our duty to protect our patients/clients, it should also be our upmost importance to protect our colleagues, whoever they maybe or wherever they may work. It saddens me that this social worker was failed to such a degree that although and adding to her character tried to continue her career, in the end was unable to continue. I hope that over time and with support she may one day recover mentally.

  3. Paul Midgley April 5, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    Why did she seek to pursue him into the one place he had sought sanctuary from the stress of her actions?

    • Linda Dodds April 7, 2014 at 11:22 am #

      I dont see that she ‘pursued’ him anywhere Paul? She was attending a review meeting at the child’s school and wasnt even expecting him to be there?

      • Paul Midgley April 9, 2014 at 9:10 am #

        Linda, if you read the report you will see:

        “Two days before the meeting, Selwood happened upon a fax sent to the admin worker shared between her team and the council’s mental health workers. On the fax was a check list for Burton’s admission to local psychiatric hospital Cherry Knowles.”
        and
        “She requested more information and the CPN said she’d ask if Selwood could take part in a ward round at the hospital on the Wednesday.”

        Since Ms Selwood is not qualified in psychiatry, why could she not request a qualified report? Why did she want to personally view Mr Burton at his most vulnerable? At the very least her intent seems insensitive. At the worst, given she already knew there was animosity, it could be (and probably was by Burton) recognised as provocative ‘Bear Baiting.’

        There should be no part in this highly sensitive work for personal vendetta’s and humiliating point scoring.