Ten years ago 17-month-old Peter Connelly was found dead in his cot after months of cruelty from those who were meant to care for him most. His mother Tracey, her boyfriend Steven Barker, and his brother, Jason Owen, were convicted of “causing or allowing” his death.
Peter’s short life had been filled with pain. He’d suffered more than 50 injuries. The resulting investigations revealed that over an eight-month period he had been seen 60 times by social workers from Haringey council, doctors and police.
Given Peter’s death had occurred only a few years after the high profile death of Victoria Climbie, also involving Haringey, it did not take long for the media to focus on the failings of social services in the area.
A serious case review published in 2010 found Peter’s death should and could have been prevented. Every agency involved in his care, including health, the police and social services, had been “well motivated” and wanted to protect him. But their practice collectively and individually, was “completely inadequate” and failed to properly challenge Tracey’s explanations for maltreatment suffered by her son.
Although the SCR made clear that mistakes had been made across all services, the political and media furore that followed focused almost entirely on the social workers and their boss, Sharon Shoesmith.
This was partly because David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, painted Peter’s death as a Labour government failing on child protection, and partly because The Sun newspaper, under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks, decided to launch a ‘Baby P’ campaign, labelling it as a ‘fight for justice’ and calling for the sackings of all those involved at Haringey.
The most vicious attacks named and shamed the social workers, who were eventually sacked. Ed Balls, then education secretary, ordered the removal of Shoesmith live on TV. A climate of fear gripped social workers across the country, as a ‘Baby P effect’ triggered a surge in child protection referrals and children being taken into care.
Shoesmith, who has written her own account of the ‘Baby P’ reaction and what she feels must be learnt from it, remains furious at what she sees as Cameron’s “opportunism” in politicising Peter’s death and the naivety of Balls’ response to the mounting pressure.
“He [Balls] had no idea of the damage he was about to inflict on the social work profession and on children because of that ‘Baby P effect’. A lot of those children are still in care now. That has really troubled me for a decade,” she says.
“He thought this was just one rogue director and a crap department – that Haringey was a basket case that needed to be sorted out in isolation. He didn’t know the size of what he was unleashing. It wasn’t only social workers who lost their nerve, it was everyone in the child protection system.”
The ‘Baby P effect’
The impact was felt across the frontline. Sarah, a children’s social worker, was working in a child protection team in England when the Baby P furore hit its peak.
She remembers referrals flooding in as other agencies classed more cases as child protection, terrified of missing “another Baby P”. She says it made it harder for social workers to spot those needing urgent action – they became “needles in the haystack”.
“Health, education, you name it, were piling it all into us. The police were very risk averse too, so we were going out on joint visits all over the place for things that should not have needed the police and a child protection social worker turning up at your door.”
Social workers became defensive in their practice, focused on following procedures rather than what would most make a difference to children. Too many assessments were carried out “to no real purpose” other than ensuring services would be covered if something, anything, went wrong, Sarah recalls.
“Senior managers didn’t want to be the next Sharon Shoesmith. Middle managers were terrified that the buck would stop with them if bad decisions were made. And the frontline staff felt like they were carrying everyone’s risk and anxiety.”
Social workers also had to work “doubly hard” when working with families where child protection concerns existed, she says, with some parents quick to point to the ‘Baby P’ coverage if questioned about their own children.
“People would say ‘what would you know, you let that little boy die?’. There’s often a degree of mistrust of social workers anyway. It’s very rare in child protection that somebody wants you there and it’s often only years later that anyone realises what you did and why you did it,” she says.
“It is difficult for families and you know that. But because the press coverage was so big it felt like there was suddenly another huge barrier to get through before you could have conversations with people about their own children.”
‘I still remember the shock’
While the shockwaves were being felt by social workers across the country, Gillie Christou, a team manager in the Haringey child protection service that had overseen Peter’s case, was at the centre of the storm.
She says hearing that a child you’ve been working with has died is among the worst news any social worker can get and she’ll never forget the day she was told about Peter.
“I still remember the shock I felt. How had this happened? Why this child of all the others I had responsibility for?
“It was unexpected. Initially there was confusion about how Peter had died. It may be hard to believe, but at that time there was no talk of serious injury and the question of ‘how’ still needed to be answered. I had no idea how to react.”
Christou had worked in social work for 25 years, much of it in children’s services. But she’d never experienced anything like this. While investigations into Peter’s death were underway, she continued to work with the families she had responsibility for but the stress of trying to carry on in the job while processing the sadness of Peter’s death was phenomenal, she says.
It was during the criminal trial, where she was appearing as a witness, that she first saw the “utterly terrifying” level of media interest in the story. On the 11th November 2008, with the convictions for Peter’s death served, it was announced the serious case review would be published and the press stepped up its interest in the social workers.
The first day a journalist knocked on her front door, was the last she ever practised in a profession that she says she loved and still misses to this day.
“That was the last day I did any work as a social worker. The media and politicians had stepped in and made it unsafe for me to return to work,” she says.
“I also felt unsafe at home as reporters and photographers found their way to my door. The realisation over the next few days of what seemed to be unfolding was the next shock to my system.”
Days of national headlines became weeks, and then weeks became months. By this time The Sun had launched its ‘Baby P’ campaign including a petition demanding the sackings of Christou and her colleagues. It got 1.4 million signatures.
Christou remembers going to a shop and seeing an invite to sign it on the counter.
“It was horrible. I just had to leave”, she says. “At that point the coverage was so big. It was all out there. I just couldn’t do anything. I felt numb and defeated.”
At points the distress, the frustration, the shame and the vulnerability felt overwhelming, says Christou: “You either let it completely finish you off or you have to go on.
“I still had other roles in life I needed to fulfil. I had to find the strength to keep going.”
In August 2009, Haringey’s disciplinary process finished. Christou was told she would be sacked along with the other social care staff involved in the case.
Nine months later she was told that the social work regulator, the GSCC, would report its findings of a lengthy investigation into the fitness to practise of Christou and Maria Ward, who had been Peter’s allocated social worker.
The investigation found both social workers’ mistakes in the case amounted to misconduct. They failed to keep adequate records. Ward had failed to visit Peter often enough. Christou, as Ward’s manager, failed to provide enough supervision to her social worker.
However Christou and Ward were not barred from being social workers. The GSCC issued the pair with suspensions after concluding that their errors were not serious enough for them to be struck off. The committee handling the investigation said a striking off order would have been “disproportionate” and serve no purpose other than satisfying “a perceived public demand for blame and punishment”.
Christou says the GSCC’s decision remains “hugely important” to her given some of the tabloid narrative that had developed around her and Ward.
“They could see that we hadn’t deliberately or maliciously set out to ignore this child and his family. They didn’t see enough to think that we shouldn’t be social workers. And yet the media had been saying ‘these people shouldn’t be allowed near children’, that we were a danger to the public.”
Initially Christou harboured hopes of returning to social work but eventually, she concluded that the brutal hit her confidence had taken would make it impossible for her to do the job well.
She and Ward launched an unsuccessful legal challenge to their sackings, arguing Haringey had dismissed them unfairly. By the time that case finished Christou had shelved any hopes of re-joining the profession.
In the meantime, politicians commissioned a series of reviews of the social work profession following a second Laming report. In 2009, the then Labour government published the findings of the Social Work Taskforce, which led to the creation of The Social Work Reform Board and the College of Social Work in a bid to boost the profession’s status.
By this time the media quest to find a new angle to the story meant more attention was being paid to the issues around high caseloads, inadequate IT systems and problems with recruitment and retention of social workers.
When the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government came to power in 2010 it wanted and needed its own plan for social work reform – particularly in children’s services.
It commissioned Professor Eileen Munro, a former social worker and highly respected academic at the London School of Economics, to carry out a root and branch review of child protection.
Munro found social services had become so obsessed with complying with procedures and regulations that professional skill, and a basic focus on relationships, had been eroded in social work.
“The broader public sector was gripped by new public management at the time and the idea that top down control was the way to do it. It was called the ‘targets and terror’ approach. When you apply that to the child protection field, which has enough terror anyway because of the horror of a child dying, then it really was quite damaging,” she says.
“I was really quite disturbed by how many social workers talked about families they were working with in a very bureaucratic, rather than a human way. Somebody was a ‘section 47’ rather than a woman who is living with four children in an appalling house who is trying her hardest but making a bit of a mess of it.
“If you don’t make that human contact with a person then you can’t help solve their problems. At least, to me, that’s what social work is about. But social work had become about processing and referring-on, not helping.”
Munro set out a blueprint for a “child-centred” system that she felt would help create the conditions to help professionals make the best judgments they could to protect a child.
Her review recommended cutting down the government dictated and prescriptive guidance and replacing it with greater trust in professionals’ judgment. It called on council leaders to take more responsibility for giving social workers the right conditions to practice effectively, and Ofsted to focus inspections on social work practice, not just paperwork.
Munro also recommended the creation of two new roles. The first was a principal child and family social worker in every council, who would be involved in some direct work as well as management. The second was a national chief social worker who would give the profession “greater visibility in government”.
Six years on from her report, many of Munro’s recommendations have been acted on. She feels children’s services are overall, going in the right direction with about a third of councils making “fantastic” progress in creating the right kind of social work culture.
However, she’s concerned that too little is being done to tackle the high caseloads and working conditions, such as hotdesking, that she feels can rob social workers of the tools and time to do the job well.
“Being clear about what conditions we need and workload management is a crucial problem. Because the one thing that any good social work requires is time. The authorities that have been rated outstanding by Ofsted have got tiny caseloads. It’s not the total explanation, but it’s one factor.”
Munro says the Peter Connelly case has left “an element of fear” in child protection work, with practitioners “scarred” by the treatment of Shoesmith and the social workers involved.
But she is hopeful that is one thing which has changed in the years since her review, and feels politicians no longer “lambast” social workers if a child dies.
“I think the absence of them commenting doesn’t get noticed by everybody, but they haven’t. I asked them not to and they agreed to. Obviously totally irresponsible or malicious behaviour deserves to be punished. But generally speaking you’re dealing with people who have being trying to do an honest day’s work. They are not wicked and they do not deserve to be lambasted by the tabloids.
“We have had some really very distressing cases [since Baby P]. Daniel Pelka was fairly horrifically discussed in the media, but not by the secretary of state for education.”
Christou feels there has been less naming and shaming of social workers by the national media since her own experiences. Shoesmith thinks politicians have learned something from the Baby P case about “not jumping in” whenever a child dies: “I think they see what Ed Balls did and what folly that was.”
It was perhaps important that 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 later admitted The Sun’s hounding of Shoesmith was “probably too cruel” and “over the top”.
But some argue that none of the institutions involved – the press, the politicians or the social work profession – have been tested to the same extremes they were back in 2007 and 2008.
Ray Jones, a social work professor who has authored an extensive account of the Baby P case, says the reaction to Peter’s death was “exceptional” in three ways – the intensity of The Sun’s coverage, Cameron’s decision to politicise it “from day one of the story breaking”, and the “degree of harassment and hatred” directed at Shoesmith and the social workers.
“But we have still seen cases since where local MPs have demanded the sackings of social workers and directors. It was again the social workers who got targeted, not the other agencies. So we still see social workers in the firing line and politicians lining up to take shots when they’re under pressure,” he says.
“We know now from Ed Balls’ autobiography that he was under tremendous personal pressure from tabloid editors to act. The message he was given was that if he didn’t do what was demanded and sack Sharon Shoesmith, he himself would be in the frame.
“He caved in under the pressure, that’s my view, and I don’t have confidence that the tabloids have changed their behaviour that much or that politicians would behave any more responsibly if faced by that.”
Jones says there remains little understanding or recognition of the strain social workers and councils are under, and the profession itself needs to find ways to challenge that. He cites the way teachers and police officers are currently highlighting the impact of cuts to their services. He wants social work to do the same.
“We have to be up front with the media and seek the opportunities to talk about the realities of what it is going on. That has to be proactive, not just us responding when something awful has happened,” he says.
“We have to be fairly strong in telling that story about how bad and difficult it has become, certainly in parts of the country, to do the work we need to do to the standard we need to do it.”
Jones feels the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is becoming “more willing to get out there in the public” and make the case for social work, helped by a growing membership and better regional representation.
When she looks back, Christou feels BASW and other sector bodies should have done more to stand up publicly for the Haringey social workers during the height of the Baby P furore. Shoesmith believes the profession’s representatives may have been wary of taking a position on details of the case while investigations were ongoing. But she believes they could and should have focused on arguing that the social workers should receive a fair hearing.
“That’s what was needed.”
Christou says that while few individual social workers spoke out publicly in support during the height of the Baby P furore, having done the job for 25 years and seen other high profile cases hit the headlines she can understand why.
“I was probably guilty of that myself. I think it’s just everyone gets terrified that it will happen to you. So you keep away from it, or don’t engage with it. Everyone knows it’s a possibility if you’re working with vulnerable children. You just hope it’s not you.”
She is, however, incredibly grateful to those who reached out privately. For months she emailed a social worker who was going through a similar experience, albeit without the same degree of press attention, and every time she hears of a serious case review she remembers how isolating it can feel for the social workers involved.
Both Christou and Shoesmith are glad that what they feel is a more complete picture of the Baby P case has emerged in recent years than that which dominated the front pages for so long.
They say Jones’s book on the scandal, published in 2014, genuinely changed their lives because it told a different side of the story that detailed the political and media forces involved. They also credit a handful of journalists who they feel took the time to dig deeper into the case.
Shoesmith says that the Baby P fallout means social workers have woken up to their vulnerability to those political and media forces, but she is not yet confident the profession knows what to do about it.
“I hope they don’t put their heads back in the sand,” she says.
Christou has never before spoken publicly at length about her own experiences of the Baby P fallout because she says she never wanted to be portrayed as a victim. She says there is rarely a day that goes by when she doesn’t think of Peter and his family.
“I am always acutely aware that at the heart of this story is a little boy failed by the services there to protect him. He is the real victim and at the hand of those supposed to love and care for him he too experienced disbelief, shock, terror, confusion, fear, battering, sadness, physical pain, numbness, frustration and more.”
Christou says she is still learning to make the best of things. When she thinks back to the events of 2007 and 2008 that came to shape so much of her life since, “the anger is not there so much anymore, but the sadness is”.
“I need to put it behind me. That bit of me being ‘one of the Baby P social workers’ is being eroded all of the time and that’s the way it should be.”