Shoesmith: ‘Social workers must stop allowing themselves to be the lame ducks’

Former children's services director tells conference that blaming social workers is institutionalised within society and the profession itself

Sharon Shoesmith
Photo credit: Rex Features

Social workers must take control of their profession or continue to be the “lame ducks” in high profile tragedies where multiple agencies have failed, Sharon Shoesmith has warned.

The former children’s services director – who was famously sacked in the wake of the Baby P case and successfully appealed against her dismissal – was addressing a packed auditorium of social care professionals at Community Care Children and Families Live.

Shoesmith told delegates that, despite failings and oversights by a number of professionals working with Peter Connelly and his family, including police officers, doctors, health visitors and paediatricians, the “cultural trope that social workers got it wrong was very potent”.

“There is a cultural trope out there that social workers are to blame when children die,” she continued. “It is embedded in our national and cultural psyche.” It is also institutionalised within society, she said, and even within the social work profession itself.

Targeting social workers is very easy, Shoesmith told delegates, particularly when the profession does not feel empowered to speak out. “I don’t hear your voice…You need to take control of your profession,” she said. She added that social workers need, “a strong national voice that represents you and your needs”.

“You’re allowing yourselves to be the lame ducks and this is the time to stop. You are not the lame duck, no other profession does the job you do,” she said.

She warned too that the current model of serious case reviews is compounding the problem. “They look for a rational answer,” she said. “They promote an idea of needing to blame someone [and] rarely engage with the complexities of multi-agency working.”

Delegates were overwhelmingly in agreement with Shoesmith and offered support to their social work colleagues involved in the case.

One, a senior child protection social worker, said: “I have read everything about the Baby P case and it is not so different from many that I and my colleagues have worked on.

Maybe we just got lucky. People think social workers can prevent anything bad from ever happening, but this masks the reality that some people are intent on harming their children and will go to great lengths to hide it.

“Even an experienced social worker will find this really challenging, but with high caseloads and budget cuts there are disasters waiting to happen. We all know this could happen to us and we’ll be the ‘lame ducks’ if it did. We need to be braver, and our own national body.”

Another social worker said: “I agree with everything Sharon Shoesmith said. It’s going to take a long time to change a deeply embedded blame culture, but we’re all part of that change.”

A recent BBC documentary, Baby P: The Untold Story, and a much-praised book, Baby P: Setting the Record Straight, have also examined the high profile tragedy and raised serious doubts about the way it unfolded and how it was shaped by politicians and journalists.

This was, both investigations concluded, to the detriment of the individuals involved, the social work profession and the child protection system.

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6 Responses to Shoesmith: ‘Social workers must stop allowing themselves to be the lame ducks’

  1. Amber Hartman November 21, 2014 at 7:18 pm #

    I was there and the feeling was NO guilt for the one child a week who is not saved by ss. I had to leave early as I felt ill watching nearly all making excuses for their failures. They failed me by NOT listening to what my own child needed and was suffering with and spend 18 months desperate to put my child in care. Now ss refuse to help my child!

  2. Andy West November 22, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

    I agree very strongly with what Sharon Shoesmith has said. From the start the reaction to the death of baby p was a hatchet job (Ray Jones book shows this comprehensively but i fear that it comes too late.) It is so true that our social care leaders were never strong enough in their condemnation of how those involved were treated. In my experience workers in social care can often be hypercritical and judgmental themselves.

    I have recently retired but in my social work career hope it would be acknowledged within my own agency (for which I worked for 37 years) I was always forceful in expressing the need for social care workers to be treated fairly and in acknowledgement of the complex and stressful work that they do. My main point has always been that if people want a first class service they should be prepared to pay for it-of course they are not prepared to and prefer to salve their consciences by lashing out at those who try to provide a service to those who are disadvantaged in the community.

    Just before my retirement my agency had a long expected inspection from OFSTED. Many people working for many hours (though mainly managers) to get a good report and the great disappointment when this was not forthcoming. Such a waste of time and energy when the outcome could be foretold by just looking at the most recent OFSTED reports which showed that virtually no agency was going to do well. In the past I asked what would happen if I refused to co-operate with OFSTED,this political organisation running with its own agenda, and was told that I would face a disciplinary if I were to. I rarely got responses to my protests within my own agency and became worn out with continually raising issues to no avail.

    I have retired harbouring a great deal of disillusion

  3. Kenneth Gough November 24, 2014 at 3:18 am #

    Sharon Shoesmith is a classic example of a lamb being thrown to the wolves and was on a hiding to nothing. In 2009, following BabyP I realised that social workers needed a system that supported THEM and the decisions they make. No one can guarantee child safety, however, the public and inspectorates seem to believe you should be able to, Because of this misconception, those outside the profession, are always seeking to blame someone when things go wrong. This has contributed to the FEAR of something going wrong within the profession. The fear is stifling. No one speaks about a job that they should be proud of.
    When things do go wrong, usually as result of many contributing and unforeseeable factors happening at the same time, we get an SCR.
    Inevitably an SCR results in blaming an agency or person/persons coupled with new recommendations to further compound social workers administrative burden and so things get worse not better. The fear increases.
    Social workers need a system that supports them and demonstrates the ongoing work being done to protect the child. Unfortunately ICS doesn’t do this basic function. All ICS does is use up social workers valuable time that would be better spent in building strong relationships with the family.
    Social workers need a more flexible method of assessing, analysing and documenting children’s risks that ALL agencies are contributing to so that the big picture can be immediately seen and a system that allows risks to be taken where justified. Harm or Significant Harm is too broad a term for this work. Rather children should be identified as at ‘Risk of Harm’ period. We should then determine level of harm that a child is facing to all identified risks in their daily lives and address the most serious issues as a matter of priority in order to reduce the risk to the child.
    If you had this kind of system and a child dies then it would be easy to demonstrate that at the time of death, all that could be done was being done. Social workers confidence in their IT system would build, moral would increase, supervision would be easier, inspections would simple, administration would be less and public’s perception would be that you had done your best in difficult circumstances. A system such as this for social workers is almost a reality. Social workers will not be classed as lame ducks any longer but will be called ‘Professionals’.

  4. John Ramsey November 24, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

    I was most impressed with what Jones and Shoesmith had to say. Something that has changed since 2008 is that the College of Social Work has been founded. I think it is a great shame that the original vision of a merged College and BASW with a special relationship with UNISON was not to be; perhaps in the light of the recent Baby P revelations it’s time to look at it again?

  5. Terry Murphy November 26, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    Sharon Shoesmith’s honest speech challenges the notion put across by the coalition government’s chief Social Worker Isabel Trowler that managerial changes, such as the introduction of principal social workers, have been the most important change to C&F social work in the last decade. The most important change in fact has been Eric Pickles as Community Secretary slashing local authority budgets to the extent that caseloads are completely unmanageable together with the effective closure of much of the Sure Start and other preventative provision in the country.
    Government policy has, in fact, increased the likelihood of another Baby P case. Sadly though, the Chief Social Worker and the College of Social Work remain muted or silent on the impact of massive budget cuts on Social Work which has disproportionately suffered because of its location in Local Government.
    The only national group within Social Work assertively standing up for Social Work currently is the Social Work Action Network whose 10th annual conference in Glasgow The Politics of Hope: Fighting for the Future of Social Work 2 day conference 11/12 April 2015 is not only one of the biggest Social Work conferences each year, but is uncompromising in its rejection of the austerity agenda and the linked government smokescreen of managerialist tinkering by Trowler et al or elitist nonsense like Frontline, but instead is focused on the real lives of social workers and service users and the creative possibilities when they come together.

  6. Peter Cocks November 28, 2014 at 11:26 am #

    I am a social worker in the Adults sector.
    On one occasion, when I worked in a multi-disciplinary team, I was drawing to the close of a supervision session with my Lead Practitioner. She pointed out to the open-plan office which we could see through the glass panel of the room we were in. She said ‘If I told one of those nurses out there to perform a procedure which they should not perform they would simply refuse. They have the professional confidence and the backing of the Royal College of Nursing.’ The Lead Practitioner then told me that, in her opinion, social workers had been so battered that they do not have the sense of their professional status and also they do not have a professional body to represent them (she said these things before the existence of The College of Social Work was set up).
    There seems to be an unspoken understanding that the social worker will take the blame. This places an unfair, vey difficult burden upon social workers and sometimes does not allow a constructive investigation to take place.
    I think that social workers need some effective support to assert their professional status and also to be protected.
    However, as I understand it, under Ms Showsmith’s leadership there were an exceptionally large number of serious child abuse problems in Haringey. Surely it is the responsibility of management to ensure that policies covering recruitment, supervision and working practices are in place and enforced sufficiently to prevent (as far as is possible) the problems we were hearing about in Haringey.
    I wonder how many social workers in Haringey suffered the pressures Ms Shoesmith describes whilst she was in charge. I wonder how much of it could have been prevented.
    Nonetheless, I agree heartily with pretty much all that she said in the speech.