Sharon Shoesmith: criminal offences could ensure social workers get fair hearing

The ex-director of Haringey children's services says government plans for a wilful neglect type offence might present an opportunity for social workers to "mount a proper legal defence" when they come under attack

Sharon Shoesmith

Government proposals that could see social workers face criminal sanctions for failing to protect children may give the profession an opportunity for a fair hearing, Sharon Shoesmith has said.

She said that trials could give professionals the fair hearing which social workers in Haringey did not have during the media storm following the death of Baby P.

The ex-director of Haringey children’s services – who was infamously sacked on television by then education secretary Ed Balls – said a criminal offence could give social workers access to legal representation if their practice was brought into question.

Trial by media

Shoesmith, who has written a book ‘Learning from Baby P’, said this would be an improvement on the current system of a “local quasi-legal proceedings and the ‘court of public opinion’ or ‘trial by media’”.

“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?” Shoesmith wrote.

“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.”

The government recently announced a consultation on two duties that could be placed on social workers, which could carry criminal offences for those who fail to comply. The principles which underlie the current charge of wilful neglect for care workers would inform a possible ‘duty to act’ proposal, .

Shoesmith told Community Care the move could be social work’s “route to a fair hearing”.

Fair hearing

She said a criminal offence of this nature would be “very hard to prove” and there wouldn’t be many cases where it would be proven.

“But what I am looking to is a route to a fair hearing. And there is no other route to a fair hearing.”

Shoesmith questioned the negative response from many in the sector to the proposal.

“The profession should have the ability to oust people who have wilfully neglected cases. Of course it should,” she said.

Shoesmith has argued in ‘Learning from Baby P’ that social workers often have their practice condemned “with the benefit of hindsight”, and in a court of law they may be more encouraged to open up about the “unspeakable aspects of their jobs”.

‘Learning from Baby P’, a book completed by Shoesmith as part of her PHD. analyses the political, media and public reaction to the death of Peter Connelly, which began in 2008 following Peter’s death a year earlier, and identifies a ‘cultural trope’ of how the public comes to blame social workers.

“Blaming social workers for such harm to children is a defensive process of denial,” Shoesmith wrote.


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2 Responses to Sharon Shoesmith: criminal offences could ensure social workers get fair hearing

  1. Pat Elliott August 25, 2016 at 9:40 pm #

    Absolutely agree and a real opportunity for a proper defence of individuals working within an overloaded system. I suspect when defence lawyers start contextualising then the notion will fall into disrepute

  2. karanuts August 30, 2016 at 3:50 pm #

    Fair hearing ? Is a based on the ability to afford a good legal defense. Guilty until proven innocent. No LA or NHS is going to fund the trial of professional. Perhaps Shoesmith could address this? Defensive practice is not the route the profession should be heading.