‘Politician, heal thyself!’: Social work academics react to the Baby P documentary

Seven social work academics reflect on the BBC’s Baby P documentary and the politicised legacy the case has left

By Brigid Featherstone (Open University), Kate Morris (Nottingham Univeristy), Anna Gupta (Royal Holloway, University of London), Jane Tunstill (Kings College, London), Sue White (University of Birmingham), James Blewett (Kings College, London), and June Thoburn (University of East Anglia).

The BBC documentary on Baby Peter was extremely distressing to watch and we salute the brave and principled programme makers and those who spoke out in it.

The key devastating message that emerges is that the tragic death of a little boy was politicised by those seeking to secure electoral capital and appease unscrupulous newspapers.

Sadly, this is not a story that relates to a bygone era at which we can shake our heads, noting smugly how far we have come. Indeed, we would suggest that politicisation is a key feature of our current climate.

A danger of such crude politicisation is that it can encourage defensiveness with the consequence being that sober reflection on the strengths and weakness of systems and services to protect children is a casualty.

Thus it is to the enormous credit of a great deal of people (including, to be fair, the politicians who commissioned various reviews) that careful work was done in the years, after the death of Baby Peter, to highlight and put in place key reforms.

For many involved this work often required inhabiting an uncomfortable space between rejection of the shameful scapegoating of social workers and the evidence that was being gathered, from a very wide range of constituencies, of the need for change.

Bureaucratised culture

In particular, practitioners spoke of a risk averse and bureaucratised culture affecting all agencies that stopped them engaging with families meaningfully.

Educators spoke of the need to work with employers to ensure robust and integrated learning experiences and of the attendant difficulties in the context of an expansion of numbers and institutions.

Reforms were proposed and, especially in the case of social work education, action ensued; for example, changes were made to the recruitment standards and curricula of all universities.

Moreover, a number of local authorities started on diverse and often very exciting journeys involving the reconfiguration of services; brave and necessary work that often ran up against the realities of austerity.

However, politicians did not reform their own damaging practices sadly, despite establishing reviews such as the Munro Review.

That review made important recommendations on developing a risk sensible culture, but, today, the sector is even more risk averse, if not frightened, than ever. This is, in large part, because of policies that have been developed by politicians unable to resist bending events to fit their own ideological ends.

Lack of evidence

Hyper-active policy making, to which we have become sadly accustomed in the arena of child protection, continues unabated. Changes are being made to the delivery of services that are not evidence informed and rest upon a profoundly problematic narrative; local authorities are not able to protect children.

Having scoured the literature, we find no evidence to support the outsourcing of services on the grounds of quality and very mixed evidence in relation to cost. This does not seem to be posing any challenge to this narrative however.

This is all the more puzzling in a context where some of the most lauded reform programmes have occurred within local authorities. The opening up to the market of a public good such as child protection is an example, par excellence, of politicians seeking to make political capital on the backs of vulnerable children and their families.

Wide ranging changes are being made to social workers’ career pathways, roles and responsibilities. Changes are also being made to qualifying education; changes that are expensive and not informed by evidence and may result in profoundly unequal experiences for students and thus for the future workforce.

The speed of change, coupled with the fragmenting of professional standards, the demarcation of roles and attempts to narrow down and prescribe the knowledge base raise the real prospect for families that their needs will either be too great, too little or a wrong fit with the service’s remit.

Sober reflection

We know that continuity in relationships, responsive flexible support across all levels of need and a respectful working environment (for staff and families) are critical ingredients for supporting change.

Creating hierarchal access to training, additional structures for service delivery and fragmented approaches to need simply means our capacity to help vulnerable children and families is reduced, all this at a time when austerity means needs are escalating.

Once again, in the wake of this devastating BBC programme, we need sober reflection.

The evidence that frontline practitioners and their managers were unfairly singled out and persecuted is heartbreaking but must not obscure the messages that emerged from the careful work that was carried out after this tragic death on the need for reform.

Nor can it obscure the thoughtful work already underway evidenced in changes in education, the creation of principal social workers and localised developments in relation to respectful interagency working.

But it does seem that the reform agenda has been captured by politicians who find it extremely hard to desist from business as usual. We need to reclaim this agenda in the name of evidence, social justice and humane social work with families.

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4 Responses to ‘Politician, heal thyself!’: Social work academics react to the Baby P documentary

  1. Stephen Barber October 29, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    It is also worth reading Ray Jones’ The Story of Baby P for more about how this case was manipulated. Edi Carmey’s SCR, for example, was condemned and replaced by another rush job. It is a pity Balls was not challenged about the 17 rewrites of the emergency inspection.

    In trying to learn from this, I wonder whether it would have been better for the press conference to have been given by the SCR Chair (Edi Carmey), the Director (Sharon Shoesmith), the NHS rep and a police rep all together. It is essential to have a coordinated press strategy for such cases. There were weaknesses in all services, but those responsible for the child’s death were those who were convicted in court.

  2. Margaret Tyson October 29, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    What appears to me to be the overiding problem is lack of communication between social service workers themselves, with other agencies (e.g. health) and with people involved including family, friends and neighbours. There appears to be lack of structure and systems in place for social service workers to follow which directors and executives should have in place. Evidence is not used enough and in its place opinion and value judgement are used too much. Training appears also to be a problem. Social service managers who don’t know the person involved should not be allowed to overrule a social worker’s decision if it is based on evidence.

  3. RP October 30, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    As a former Social Worker in Child Protection, and solely in response to Margaret Tyson’s comments above; Social Workers do work in unison with Team Managers, without a good, supportive Team; social work would be unbearable! And multi-agency practice is mostly very good in my experience.
    One of the issues highlighted was that the other serious cases that were ‘kicking off’ at the time seemed to take priority. Therefore for Baby P sadly referrals were made rather than necessary action taken. Baby P’s mother was not the type to come forward. Much of a social workers day can be spent fielding calls from irate customers who rightly believe that those who shout the loudest; get the most. During the summer holidays parents scream down the phone that they’ll leave their kids on social services doorstep unless ‘something is done’. For a social worker it can feel ‘dangerous’ not to respond to those type of calls even though you can suspect all you like that its all just threats. So those shouting parents demand to be dealt with in that moment. These days social work is fire fighting not so much preventative work, due to the enormous numbers of dysfunctional family life. Social workers may have up to 30 case loads at one time, most of which can be on the verge of taking children into care. As a social worker it becomes difficult to draw the line and find the correct priority between cases. Of course that responsibility can often become overwhelming.

  4. Alan Wilson November 2, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    It is clear to me, having just seen the documentary that we cannot continue to accept the Government, Local Authorities and associated agencies can deal with the problems created in our society. We need to provide these families with more effective tools and techniques to empower them to take responsibility for themselves. Sounds too easy and obvious I know but it can be and is being done.