Sharon Shoesmith calls for ‘honest’, not ‘destructive’, accountability in social services

Without challenge from local government, the sector will forever be forced to parade 'failing' staff after high profile child deaths, warns Shoesmith

“Destructive accountability has created a form of cultural trauma around child protection… and we must find a way out of it.” That was the message from Sharon Shoesmith when she addressed social workers and managers at a Community Care conference, held last week to mark the fifth anniversary of the fallout from the Peter Connelly (Baby P) case.

In a considered, honest and forensically-researched speech, the former Haringey director reflected on her difficult experiences over the last five years, sharing what they have taught her about public accountability in England’s children’s services.

The public aspects of her life are well known – the media appearances after Baby P’s death, being ousted from her post by then education secretary Ed Balls on live TV, winning a High Court appeal against her sacking – but she also revealed the private torment she and her colleagues have endured: death threats, professional isolation, indefinite unemployment and a battle to maintain their mental health in the face of press intrusion and public vilification.

No evidence of gross misconduct

It was torment to which they should never have been subjected. Despite being treated as culpable by politicians and some elements of the press, none of the inquiries into Peter Connelly’s care found evidence of gross misconduct by any Haringey social worker or manager. Not because of a conspiratorial cover up, but because there was none to find.

“Colleagues in social care at the time had told me there was only one way out of it – to sack the social workers,” Shoemsith admitted. “But there was no evidence [to sack them]. The General Social Care Council agreed, but some elements of the press disagreed.

“I put those social workers through a proper system, totally independent of me, and there was no evidence. The leader of the council, the head of HR, the chief executive, all agreed there was no evidence of gross misconduct.”

Yet this was never reflected in political speeches or press coverage at the time. Instead, Shoesmith argued, they set out to construct “the narrative of a rogue person and a rogue local authority”. Why? Because it was easier for everyone to accept.

False assurances

It abstracted us, the public, from the reality that some people are determined to inflict horrific abuse on children and allowed politicians to utter false assurances – that children will never be murdered or horrifically abused and neglected again.

She told delegates: “Politicians talk about never letting another child die because harm to children touches us so profoundly. They want and I want and you want to reassure the public – we want to tell them that we can save children. It is our natural inclination and we can’t resist getting into these no-risk reassurances that we simply can’t deliver on.”

It would seem politicians didn’t have the courage, or possibly the facts, to speak the truth when interviewed after Baby Peter’s death. The truth being that child homicide is complex and can’t be explained away by sackings and serious case reviews alone – and that 54 other children died in 2007, as well as Peter Connelly. And 500 children died since the death of Victoria Climbie (600 by the end of Ed Balls’ term in office).

Lack of candour and serendipity

“Why do we protect the public from these facts?” Shoesmith asked. “Why did no one have the guts to say it? With the rhetoric from five years ago it’s possible that many members of the public and many professional people thought only two children had died and they had both died in Haringey. Our way of dealing with child homicide has led us to a lack of candour at the very highest levels.”

In the short-term, of course, that reactive agenda suits everyone but the people involved. But in the long-term it’s dangerous and social workers know it. It’s what caused many directors to contact Shoesmith after the tragedy, admitting, “it could have been any of us”.

“Here we are as professional people, who protect thousands and thousands of children year on year, left depending on serendipity,” she said. “Every social worker who retires thinks, ‘thank God I got here without any of that’. This is the stuff that’s there at 4am.

“Public accountability is very important, it is your route to outstanding reputations and excellent services,” Shoesmith told delegates. “But at the same time it is your Achilles heel…We cannot progress further than, ‘some social worker didn’t bother, wasn’t up to it, didn’t care’. We cannot get out of this blame culture and we all indulge in it.”

Honest accountability

And these selective narratives still dominate after high profile child deaths. Just look at what happened to former Coventry director of children’s services Colin Green, forced to resign in the wake of the Daniel Pelka case. As Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas pointed out when he spoke later, “in social work you’re only as good as your last 24 hours”.

“[Media and politicians] need the honourable resignation,” Shoesmith said, “the humble apology, the rogue element, the opportunity to offer oneself up for the greater good, to allow everyone else to breathe a sigh of relief and get on with the job they were doing. I’m speaking about the symbolic resignation of a person who’s made no personal transgression. That is the nature of the public accountability that we are subject to.”

She also noted the difference between accountability for those working in social services, who are usually unable to overcome the personal and professional indictment, and politicans, for whom such an event generally means a “temporary stepping out of role”.

Local government must fight back

Her route to it was not, but her call to action is simple. Well, simple to say, somewhat less simple to achieve. It is for “honest accountability” in public services, rather than “destructive accountability” – that marred by inaccurate information and/or political and media agendas.

“Public accountability is founded on some misplaced socially constructed notion of reality, a failure to understand the nature of risk management, political opportunism, gender politics and absolute pure serendipity. Without some form of challenge from local government, accountability will continue to exist in this culture that predetermines its own failure.

“The sector will forever allow itself to be forced to parade so-called failing staff at all levels in public in a relentless message of ‘mea culpa’: ‘we’re not up to the job’. Destructive accountability has created a form of cultural trauma around child protection,” she said.

The long round of applause that followed her speech, and the evident support from delegates, suggested she is far from alone in this view.

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One Response to Sharon Shoesmith calls for ‘honest’, not ‘destructive’, accountability in social services

  1. Chris Mills December 19, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    A very good analysis. But there is more to be said. I agree that “destructive accountability” has created “a form of cultural trauma around child protection”, but it also results in decreased SAFETY. The absence of a ‘just culture’ (to borrow a phrase from Sidney Dekker) frustrates the development of a reporting culture, in which error, and the effectiveness of defences against it, can be openly and objectively examined. If people are too afraid to discuss what goes wrong, it will go wrong more often.

    If ever an activity needed to be honest and open about mistakes, it is child protection. We simply cannot afford to cover up mistakes or to pretend that they are all the fault of a ‘few bad apples’. Children and young people are the ones who suffer most as a result of destructive accountability. It prevents the development of safer services.