‘Baby P ruling a sad day for those committed to protecting children’

Maria Ward and Gillie Christou were unsuccessful in their appeal ‘because of the tangle of legal rules, processes and previous case law’, says social work professor Ray Jones

So now we know. Today Maria Ward and Gillie Christou were told that the Court of Appeal has failed to overturn Haringey council’s decision to dismiss them following the death of Baby Peter.

Ward was Peter Connelly’s social worker when he died in August 2007, Christou was her manager. Both were experienced and dedicated child protection workers, much respected by colleagues within their own and other agencies.

They were caught in the media-created frantic frenzy – led by The Sun newspaper, with David Cameron’s help – in November 2008 when Peter’s mother, her boyfriend and his brother were each convicted of ‘causing or allowing’ Peter’s death.

Rebekah Brooks, then editor of The Sun, turned the vitriol and vilification on those who had sought to protect Peter, creating turmoil and trauma for the social workers and their managers and families. They and their children received death threats and were hunted and harassed by reporters and paparazzi photographers.

So, what might we learn from the experiences of Maria Ward and Gillie Christou?

Firstly, when the powerful act irresponsibly nobody seems able to rein them back. An influential newspaper set a story running, with national politicians – including Balls, Cameron and Gove – making statements and taking actions. This created danger and threats for the social workers and undermined child protection nationally.

Secondly, an employer – Haringey council – that had already concluded its disciplinary review, quite unusually and exceptionally held a second disciplinary inquiry following media and political pressure. The second time it had a very different outcome.

It sacked a whole top manager to practitioner line of managers and social workers. Extraordinary. Either Haringey was incompetent when it carried out its first disciplinary inquiries, or its stance changed in the context of media and political demands for heads to roll. Both are frightening possibilities. Many suspected, and suspect, the latter.

Thirdly, the judicial system is exposed as being about legal justice, not natural or social justice. It is immersed in its own technicalities and introversion. Ward and Christou were unsuccessful in their appeal against their dismissals because of the tangle of legal rules, processes and previous case law.

It is a Kafkaesque world where you can be bullied by the powerful and then trapped by the very procedures that existed to ensure the powerful could be restrained.

Today is not a good day for those who are committed to protecting children. They have been left more vulnerable. This also makes it more vulnerable for children who need protecting. A sad day indeed.

  • Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, and was previously director of social services in Wiltshire

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