Sharon Shoesmith on Baby P, blame and social work’s climate of fear

The ex-director of Haringey’s children's services spent years trying to survive a media onslaught. She's spent the past four trying to understand it.

Sharon Shoesmith

“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.

Political pressure

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.

Feeling ‘hunted’

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”.

Coping mechanism

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.

Collective voice

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.”

Anxieties

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.”

‘Learning from Baby P: The politics of blame, fear and denial’ by Sharon Shoesmith is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

22 Responses to Sharon Shoesmith on Baby P, blame and social work’s climate of fear

  1. Martin Porter August 25, 2016 at 2:53 pm #

    “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 ”

    This is a really important point.

    When the s**t hits the fan, who speaks up for Social Workers? Shoesmith did, and great respect to her for it, but usually management won’t, the unions won’t, and BASW won’t. There’s the Social Work Action network, but they are a small grass roots organisation.

    When there is a big, multi-institution failure the other agencies have strong bodies that defends them even – and I’ll be careful what I say here – if that means being skilful in how they use the truth. That leaves Social Workers to take the blame by default.

    • Ruth Cartwright August 26, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

      I recall ‘Baby P’ and other similar events very well. The reason being that I was working for BASW at the time and myself and colleagues were on many, many media outlets, sticking up for social work, pointing out that there had been errors by other agencies, explaining how hard child protection work is. It’s not comfortable to be in a studio or on a phone line being attacked by sceptic commentators, but it’s what BASW does. I believe our chair at the time was tackled by the redoubtable John Humphrys on the Today programme. I can’t equate all this activity with Martin Porter’s comment that BASW won’t speak up for social workers, and suggest he checks the evidence in the media of the time and in prior and subsequent outbursts of public outrage stoked by ill-informed and malicious press and media.

      • Martin Porter August 26, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

        BASW looked at bigger picture, but who actually phoned these Social Workers and checked they were okay, organised legal advice for them etc? It shouldn’t have had to come down to their sacked former boss.

        • Ruth Cartwright August 26, 2016 at 7:53 pm #

          In fact, BASW was involved along with Sharon Shoesmith and I made a personal donation to the social worker’s fighting fund. I’m sure colleagues did too. BASW’s primary responsibility has to be towards those who are actually members, and there are many, many battles the Advice and Representation service has fought for Social Workers who are unfairly treated.

  2. chris cheatle August 25, 2016 at 3:31 pm #

    Could we, I wonder, crowd fund an annual public lecture on the relationship between Politicians, Social Work and the Public.?

    • LongtimeSW August 25, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

      Problem is it would probabaly be sponsored by capita, virgin health care, amey roadstone co. or some other privateer

  3. Me August 25, 2016 at 7:27 pm #

    What is more of a shock is that there is actually a population within the UK that these “newspapers” or “news organizations” appeal to! If there was no market for them to sell their “news”, they would not be around long.

    Social workers have been trying to “educate” the public AND government on the realities of the job but they choose to not listen and for the government, the budget comes before services.

    Good luck to Ms Shoesmith and the social workers that were so poorly treated. I concur with them in not returning to the profession, at least until some significant change and understanding takes place. 15 years in the profession and after this case, I moved into the voluntary sector and a few years after that, out of social work all together. I will never forget what our clients said (blame) after and the anxiety of management which it all became an extremely toxic and stressful situation. Nothing has changed. What we complained about before and after is exactly the same complaints being expressed now.

    Would never go back, despite my love for the work, until significant investment is made by the government in changing both their views of our work and a significant monetary investment in both preventative and child protection services….adult service is just as poorly funded and over stretched, by the way.

  4. Anne August 25, 2016 at 8:35 pm #

    Apparently in the baby P case the social worker should have challenged the paediatrician, 3 times, and the legal team who advised there was not sufficient evidence to remove, never mind that the baby had a broken back when the paediatrician saw him (or didn’t look at him) it is still the social workers fault. Nothing will change until the public and government understand that it was Ps ‘carers’ that murdered him and there will always be children killed by those who are supposed to care for them, social workers are not magical mind readers, medically trained or have the powers of the police. I admire Sharon Shoesmith and feel very sad for her but she must accept that her book will change nothing.

  5. Hels August 25, 2016 at 11:14 pm #

    I’ve never met a social worker who had killed a child, but I’ve met many parents, carers or connected people who have!!!!

  6. Me August 26, 2016 at 12:18 am #

    Sharon Shoesmith needs commended for her determination to stand up for social workers especially after the horrendous ordeal she has endured! She has continued to fight for the profession and advocate for vulnerable children like Baby P. Until the government recognise social work is so underfunded and not supported enough by them I am no confident the profession will ever improve for the better. Social workers are over worked and under immense pressure yet this appears to continuously go unnoticed; equally it is unsustainable!

  7. Ansu August 26, 2016 at 7:37 am #

    Politicians need to have a taste of frontline social work to understand how social workers feel when children die. Blaming people is easier than looking for origins of problems.

  8. Jodie August 26, 2016 at 7:46 am #

    I admire Sharon Shoesmith for still continuing to speak up about the awful way Social Workers are treated whenever something goes wrong – even when the Social Worker could have done nothing or could not have known. There is a high level of constant anxiety in Child Protection (where I work anyway) and the number one thing you think about all your cases, whilst trying to protect them as best as you humanly and professionally can, is what if this child dies? How awful for the child, but also will I be front page? Will I have to uproot my family and go in to hiding? Give up the career I’ve already given up so much for? It’s awful to work in an environment like that as I bet it doesn’t even cross children’s doctors or police officers minds.

  9. GH August 27, 2016 at 7:16 am #

    I applaud Sharon’s commitment to standing her corner and fighting back against the media, government and other critics of the Social Work profession.

    I was caught up in a similar scenario following the death of a client, naively I thought that the management would support me but how wrong I was. I was ostracised and criticised at every point of the ‘investigation’, documents supporting my case were denied to me and if I questioned what was happening I was deemed to be hostile towards the management.

    The management denied having any duty of care towards me, as far as they were concerned I was a Social Worker and I should have known better.

    The common theme in this type of case is that management are never wrong, but trying to fight a big organisation by yourself is a very difficult fight to have. Organisations will deny any culpability towards a clients death and will never accept criticism against them. It is much easier for them to dismiss a Social Worker and sweep their failings under the carpet.

    I took them to Court and won my case.

    • Jonathan Ritchie September 16, 2016 at 8:09 am #

      Unfortunately reputation management has a much higher priority than protecting children.

  10. Fifi Krus August 27, 2016 at 9:44 am #

    Unfortunately it is a blaming culture. The people responsible are the parents.

  11. Atoosa August 27, 2016 at 7:24 pm #

    Come on Sharon

    Who is supposed to have bullied you?

    • Jonathan Ritchie September 16, 2016 at 8:03 am #

      I wonder what Nevres Kemal would say…

  12. Wes Cuell August 28, 2016 at 9:33 pm #

    I would challenge Sharon Shoesmith’s assertion that no one would come out publicly to challenge the media outcry. At the time I was Director of Services for the NSPCC and a regular media spokesperson and I made several attempts to offer a more balanced view on the Today programme and other media channels but I was always given a hard time by journalists.

  13. Dani August 29, 2016 at 11:50 pm #

    Managers,Ofsted. Councillors and the government collude in the underfunding of social work. If an independent body were to research into the state of social work most sw’s would say they are overwhelmed by the volume of work. Yet individual workers are berated for under performing with the threat of performance capabilities. Then Ofsted visit and assess yet no one is assessing the health, wellbeing, morale and retention, sickness and grievance cultures of teams. If government, LA’s wanted to change the perception of sw they could demonstrate a commitment to support the workforce however little changes as is evident from the time of baby P.

  14. sumatra nixon August 30, 2016 at 4:07 pm #

    thinking of going into sw but if directors cant get involved on high profile cases and give case direction and oversight to managers and sws then I don’t want to do the course

  15. wendy September 3, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

    I am a bit sorry for sharon shoesmith the way she was hounded by the media .I can remember seeing her on the television explaining what had happen. she came across as very cold and unfeeling regarding the death of this child. I can remember thinking, what social work manager don’t utter the word ‘sorry’. no one at that point knew the full story.Then I heard her background is in teaching.that does not stop her from doing social work.however, I always had a view anyone going into to social work management should have done social work and learn the complexities of the role.I have worked for Haringey the head of housing was the director of children’s services. it comes back to the view that every one can do social work. until things change, even people taken the roles in child protection with a few days basic training, should not be allow. it my view. 30 year service.

  16. Martin Porter September 12, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    For anyone who wants to know the background to how something like this could happen I would recommend they read The Establishment by Owen Jones.

    In the Baby P case Social Worker came up against The Establishment, in this case consisting of both main political parties, the media and the upper ranks of the police. Together they spun the story they wanted it and the public believed it.