Sharon Shoesmith: Vilification of social workers is profession’s Achilles’ heel

Former Haringey director who was sacked over the death of Baby P says the culture of blame has left social workers traumatised

The automatic vilification of social workers in the wake of a child death is still the profession’s Achilles’ heel, Sharon Shoesmith has warned.

The former Haringey director, who was in charge of the council’s children’s services when Peter Connelly (Baby P) died in 2007, issued the warning at a Community Care conference held yesterday to mark the fifth anniversary of the fallout from the Baby P case.

Reflecting on the many inaccurate media reports on the case and her unlawful sacking by then secretary of state Ed Balls, Shoesmith accused Balls of using the child’s death as a “party-political football” and called for “honest accountability” in public services.

She acknowledged the clear need for accountability in public services, but said the process has become clouded by an “absolutely institutionalised” culture of blame, political agendas and “aspirational” messages from politicians and public servants.

“Routes of accountability come from the human need for certainty,” she said. “Politicians talk about never letting another child die…our natural inclination is to say we can save all children. But we can’t risk getting into no-risk assurances that simply can’t be delivered.”

Erroneous media reporting, a culture of blame and the lack of a strong sector voice has left social workers and the public traumatised, she said.

“We’ve embedded mistrust in the next generation. The public are traumatised because they think social workers can’t do [the job] properly. Social workers are traumatised too. Automatic vilification is your Achilles’ heel. We have to find a way out of this.”

Shoesmith also condemned the treatment of her former colleagues at Haringey council, Baby Peter’s social worker Maria Ward and Ward’s manager Gillie Christou.

Both women were sacked in the wake of the case and subjected to a trial by media, despite no investigation – internal or by the General Social Care Council – ever finding them guilty of gross misconduct.

Shoesmith warned that this culture of fear and blame carries on, with many directors contacting her to say, “it could have been any of us”. She told delegates: “The best the sector can do is hope it doesn’t happen to them.”

Peter Connelly was 17 months old when he died in August 2007. His mother Tracey Connelly, her boyfriend Steven Barker and Barker’s brother Jason Owen were given prison sentences for their roles in his death after a trial at the Old Bailey.

The case became public news on 11 November 2008 and the following month Shoesmith was removed from her post by Balls. In May 2011 the High Court ruled she had been unfairly dismissed.

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