“BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS”, ran the front page headline of The Sun following the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly, known as Baby P.
The paper was not only referring to Peter’s mother, Tracey Connelly, her boyfriend Steven Barker, and his brother, Jason Owen, all of whom had just been convicted of “causing or allowing” Peter’s death. It had decided the social workers at Haringey Council, who had been involved in the case, and their boss, Sharon Shoesmith, were also to blame.
The serious case review found failings in the way multiple agencies handled the case. The local authority got it wrong, so did the Metropolitan police, and Great Ormond Street hospital. But it was Shoesmith and Haringey’s social workers that became the main focus of the media frenzy that followed.
The Sun launched a ‘Justice for Baby P campaign’. Under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks, the paper demanded the sacking of the “bungling” social workers and Shoesmith. Their photos were splashed across a front page under the headline “GO NOW”, as the paper asked “have they got no shame?”
Within months the tabloid, far from the only voice calling for heads to roll but certainly the loudest, got its wish.
Facing pressure from Conservative leader David Cameron, then in opposition, to take action over Peter’s death, education secretary Ed Balls sacked Shoesmith at a live TV press conference. Haringey fired four social workers involved in Peter’s case. One later had to go into hiding after receiving death threats.
In the years that followed, Shoesmith won a judicial review for unfair dismissal. The judge in her case said that “public accountability does not mean that heads should roll”. Documents disclosed during her legal fight revealed the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring in Whitehall and agencies that led to her sacking. Brooks admitted The Sun’s hounding of Shoesmith was “probably too cruel” and “over the top”.
While the blame narrative that surrounds all child deaths has been hard to shift, the Baby P reaction remains the most high-profile and extreme example of social worker scapegoating in recent memory. It also triggered a sharp rise in children being taken into care – the so-called “Baby P effect”, as a climate of fear gripped social work.
Eight years on, Shoesmith is now publishing her analysis of the firestorm she found herself at the centre of, and one she says has left child protection social workers across the country “frightened of being next”. When children do die, she says, social workers are pressured to resign before the case becomes public.
Shoesmith’s book is based on the PhD she undertook after losing her job. Focused on the reaction to Peter’s death, it examines the roots of the blame culture in child protection, and the role of the media, politicians – and the social work profession itself – in sustaining it.
While she’s spent the last four years trying to understand the onslaught she and her social workers faced, Shoesmith spent the first four trying to survive it.
Her name was rarely out of the newspapers for almost a year after the convictions for Peter’s death. Journalists and photographers camped outside her home. On the odd occasion she went out, even if just for a coffee, she could find a photo of it splashed over the next day’s papers. As the media whipped up public hostility, she received death threats and online abuse.
Feeling hunted, “very, very isolated” and increasingly powerless to challenge the narrative around her and “lies” being peddled by journalists and politicians, life became a daily struggle, she says. Attempts to take things one day at a time, soon became “half a morning” at a time. She considered taking her own life. The messages of support she received at the time were “critical” to her recovery.
“No-one would come out publicly, but lots and lots of people sent me emails, very supportive emails. I actually printed them all and put them in a file. That became therapy. When I was in my worst states, I would read them. They meant an awful lot to me.”
Also vital, says Shoesmith, was making contact with the four Haringey social workers fired over the Baby P case. They were able to support one another “at times when there was just no-one there” and remain in touch.
“There was absolutely nothing in terms of proper help. In many ways we pulled each other along through the aftermath of it, looking to each other for support, being there for each other.”
Reaction to social workers
Shoesmith remains shocked at the way the social workers were treated and saddened that the trauma has left them feeling unable to return, at least so far, to a job that was their “vocation”.
Technically the social workers could return to practice. Peter’s social worker, Maria Ward, and her manager Gillie Christou, lost their jobs at Haringey, but they were not struck off the social work register and instead were suspended. Shoesmith still hopes that one day, if they want to, the social workers may feel able to re-enter the profession – “I still feel they shouldn’t say never”.
Shoesmith, who is a teacher by background, says her experiences opened her eyes to the public hostility social workers can face and the profession’s vulnerability to blame when children are killed: “If something goes wrong, and there’s a social worker in contact with it, then that person has to be the one who got it wrong”.
Research carried out in the aftermath of the Baby P case suggests one child a week is killed at the hands of a parent or carer. There were 56 other child homicides in the year Peter died. Shoesmith says not only is our country failing to deal with the issue, it is failing to even acknowledge it and the blaming of social workers has become a coping mechanism.
Social work’s position on the “bottom tier” of the caring professions makes it particularly vulnerable to vilification, Shoesmith argues. Analysing the Baby P case, she claims the greater status of Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Metropolitan police, meant they were able to wield more power and influence to avoid blame when Peter Connelly died and head off immediate publicity of their own errors in the case.
Shoesmith says she is backing social workers – “I have come to absolutely understand what it is they are up against” – but is worried aspects of the profession’s own response can unintentionally sustain the blame culture.
In feeling they need to act as “containers” for public emotion when tragedies happen, social workers can become resigned to criticism, she says. They risk signalling “we can take this on our broad shoulders” instead of educating the public on why child protection teams can never entirely eliminate risk.
The profession is also weakened by its lack of collective voice compared to others, she says. Only a quarter of social workers are members of a professional body, and different factions, notably a split between frontline workers and managers, have left a workforce that is committed, but fragmented.
“I think the whole profession over the years has been made vulnerable. There’s almost a sense that ‘I’m an individual, I’m committed to my caseload and the principles of social work and I don’t care what other people are doing over there’.
“They’re swallowed up in this culture that nobody really values the social work profession and they have to stand back and reflect on what has been done to their profession and how they can actually develop this common entity.
“If you look at the Baby P effect – a much stronger profession wouldn’t have gone there. Basically their professional judgement was taken from them and they just reacted.”
Seeking a ‘fair hearing’
Shoesmith says the best hope of “overturning” the blame culture lies with social workers themselves. Her book argues that social workers, of all levels of seniority should unite under one strong independent professional body and start finding ways of communicating the realities of the job to the public (she lists suggestions in the book).
She also believes social workers who have been involved in child homicide cases need access to a “fair hearing” rather than “trial by media”, and argues a controversial government proposal to introduce a ‘wilful neglect’ type criminal offence may offer an opportunity.
The wilful neglect offence was proposed by David Cameron when prime minister, as part of his response to the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal.
Shoesmith is aware that presenting a measure born out of the blame culture as a possible way of tackling it is ironic, but insists it could provide a much-needed chance for social workers to open up about the “unspeakable aspects of their jobs”.
“What first appeared as a threat which drew a defensive reaction from social workers might be the best opportunity that the social work profession has had to communicate the challenges of the job and to mount a proper legal defence when social workers come under attack,” she writes in the book.
“What might Peter Connelly’s social worker have told us if she had been given a chance to give evidence in a court of law rather than being ‘convicted’ by the media?”
Plans to bring social worker regulation under government control are, however “madness”, she says. She feels the General Social Care Council’s independence from government was important in how it handled the conduct cases for the Baby P social workers.
“What would have happened if it had been government controlled? Being regulated directly by the Department for Education just sounds another part of the journey of social workers not being in control of their own profession.”
Shoesmith admits to being “very nervous” about how her book will be received and is anxious about the tabloid reaction (a day after our interview The Sun and Daily Mail run stories accusing her of cashing-in on Peter’s death). But she feels it’s the right time to publish her analysis.
“We’ve learned a lot more about this case. I felt a very strong desire to say something to the social work profession, because to all intents and purposes I was being treated as a social worker. I was experiencing what their world is and what it could be and what their vulnerabilities are.
“I hope if social workers manage to go through it all, they feel supported by it. I did feel I was in a position where I could open up some issues that no-one else could.”