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.