‘People tried to put me off’: becoming a social worker after Baby P

Six social workers who qualified after Peter Connelly's death share their view of how the case impacted them

Photo: MichaelJBerlin/Fotolia

A decade on, the fallout from Peter Connelly’s death is still being felt across child protection and children’s services.

To mark the 10-year anniversary, Community Care spoke to individuals involved in the case and its immediate aftermath to reflect on what happened, and how its legacy continues to shape social work practice today.

For social workers already in the profession, nothing would be the same again.

But what about those who trained and qualified in the years after Peter’s death? How keenly is the impact of that case felt among those who didn’t work in social work at the time, and the current environment is all they know?

We spoke to six social workers who trained and went into practice after his death about joining and working in the profession.

Steph Kerr

Current job: Senior practitioner in a community social work team working with older people.

Qualified: 2013.

Age/job in 2007/08: 21 and worked in a community organisation.

How did the coverage of Peter’s death affect you, and what impact has it had on your practice?

To be completely honest, the Baby P case did not make me want to become a social worker at all. After all, think of the way social work was completely vilified in the press. I think sometimes when these stories break that social workers are afforded more blame than abusers. It was featured in my teaching at Queen’s University. I remember thinking to myself, ‘how could someone not know the extent of this abuse’?

Seeing the negative attention given to the social worker was definitely off-putting, but I continued to go into the profession because it was what I really wanted to do and I vowed to maintain a scrupulous approach to practice for my own safety. Of course in my naivety I perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the time pressures that can act as a barrier to this!

In practice, one thing that really resonated with me was the chocolate all over Peter’s face. I don’t think before anyone would have thought to ask for a child to have their face cleaned during a visit, I would now because of that case. I know it is a small thing, but it matters.

Mistakes are the biggest source of learning we have, and to close your eyes and hope for the best is just irresponsible and limiting continuous learning and development. That is what evidence-based practice is all about.

Ryan Wise

Current job: Social worker in a child protection team.

Qualified: 2015.

Age/job in 2007/08: 18/19, studying at university

How did the coverage of Peter’s death affect you, and what impact has it had on your practice?

At the time it angered me, I always felt the profession was incredibly hard work where social workers give their time and effort to help families, and watching Shoesmith et al being scapegoated was horrible.

In practice now, there is a fear that a death will occur and social workers will be blamed. All the systems in place are to ensure it doesn’t happen, which has led to bureaucratic, risk-averse cultures. The fall back to process is directly related to the fear of being vilified. If you do all of your processes there is a paper trail, which can help if and when media, your local authority or the government turns on you.

Everyone agrees it shouldn’t be like this and where there is strong leadership and organisations the fear is less.

It has encouraged curiosity but it has also led to suspicion and can work against collaboration as some social workers are overly suspicious.

Baby P changed the definition of what social work is in a child protection context. That for me is still something the profession is coming to terms with. The profession’s identity is confused.

It makes me anxious with risk. I worry if something goes wrong on one of my cases I will be blamed. Child protection plans can’t protect children all of the time and that possibility of harm leading to a serious incident is an anxiety all social workers manage, which is exacerbated by the potential repercussions and reactions as seen with Baby P.

Cath Hill

Current job: Studying for a PHD at Lancaster University and tutors social workers.

Qualified: 2012

Age/job in 2007/08: 32/33 and a stay at home mum, volunteering at a local Home Start scheme, supporting families.

How did the coverage of Peter’s death affect you, and what impact has it had on your practice?

I didn’t watch the story unfold on the television and think I want to be a social worker, my decision to do that came a year or so down the line. I do remember that it affected people’s reaction when I later told people that I was retraining as a social worker. A number of people mentioned the case and how being a social worker is a difficult job, and how they could not do it. It did not deter me.

It made me think about how challenging being a social worker can be, that it is extremely difficult to work with vulnerable people and that inevitably as a social worker you have to assess and manage risk. I remember at the time shouting at the television that it was not the professional that murdered Peter. I remember feeling terribly sad for Peter and because he was a similar age to my son at the time, I really could not understand how anybody could be so cruel to this little, innocent boy. Maybe it did subconsciously make me think that I would like to help children like Peter.

I think I was mindful of some of the lessons learned from that case. I ensured when working with babies and toddlers that couldn’t talk to me, that I would hold them, get close to them so I could really assess that they were physically well. I guess I would worry at times that I could be the social worker whose case hit the headlines.

Of course, I would try to ensure that I was managing risk effectively and take advice from managers, but I understand that these tragic cases can happen despite excellent social work. I particularly worried about this as caseloads increased and the time I had available to do thorough home visits decreased.

Jenny Copeland

Current job: NQSW.

Qualified: 2016

Age/job in 2007/08: 24 and working in the private sector.

How did the coverage of Peter’s death affect you, and what impact has it had on your practice?

I was not a social worker at the time and so I was reading it as a news story rather than as a serious case review. Even at that level though, I think Baby P was one of the many reasons that I, prior to 2011, did not feel ready to pursue a social work career.

I think it made me feel that I was not yet ready to shoulder the level of responsibility of being a social worker, nor resilient enough to cope with the idea that I could be involved in a profession, or at a direct level as the worker, on a case which involved the death of a child.

Even now, as soon as I read the name I can see that photo of him.

For my generation of social workers it remains the go-to serious case review, in the way that I suspect Jasmine Beckford or Victoria Climbié had been before.

I think it is really hard not to have the Baby P case in your mind if you work with children and families. Whenever I have been asked what my worst fear is in relation to being a social worker, it has been, and I think will remain, that a child in my care dies.

I think I come from a generation of social workers who have been openly taught about the need for defensible practice, and the need to be accountable, but I also think Baby P has made me even more aware of the need to record every case discussion, every management direction, and every hypothesis. Just in case. In my mind, there is no doubt that the Baby P case has contributed to this level of defensible practice. However, I don’t think that this approach is necessarily negative. In many ways I feel calmer because I know that there is a clear trail of my actions and decision making and this improves my resilience.


Current job: Social worker in an assessment team.

Qualified: 2015.

Age/job in 2007/08: 14, student.

How did the coverage of Peter’s death affect you, and what impact has it had on your practice?

I feel the Baby P story was what actually pushed me to be a social worker. I knew I wanted to work with children and families, and prior to the case I hadn’t even considered this. Although all the press and media coverage was negative, it did not deter me from the ambition I had for supporting and advocating for children like Baby P. I did find that many people tried to put me off from the job due to what was published. I don’t feel unless you are in the service or working closely with social workers you can understand what it is like.

I don’t feel anyone can ignore the events of Baby P and no one will ever forget his name or the story. I feel there is a fear in all social workers that something may happen to one of the children you are working with, and therefore it is always on your mind. Especially with high caseloads, increasing risk and inconsistent staff/management. At times, it feels that you always have to protect yourself as well as the children you work with.

Leeanne Bridgewater

Current job: Looked-after children’s social worker.

Age/job in 2007/08: 24, completing social work degree.

How did the coverage of Peter’s death affect you, and what impact has it had on your practice?

It helps to keep us mindful of potential risks for children and the importance of sharing information to keep them safe due to these consequences.

It helps to keep me open minded to the fact that things can go wrong, but equally there is a lot of good practice taking place daily that we do not hear about. I try and do my job taking the approach that I want to make a positive difference to children, and where there are matters with more complicating factors, I ensure that the support and expertise of my social work colleagues and other professionals is sought.

These are not pleasant events to think about, however they did happen and I cannot pretend they did not. If ignored, there is the danger of this situation repeating itself. By acknowledging what happened, we can seek to work in a way to prevent such events from happening again.

Register now for Community Care Live London for two days of free and essential learning to boost your CPD, sharpen your legal knowledge and improve your practice, on 26-27 September.

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One Response to ‘People tried to put me off’: becoming a social worker after Baby P

  1. Martin Porter August 18, 2017 at 8:38 am #

    Well done to all those wonderful people above.

    I have never felt that Social Worker was not a worthwhile job, but having seen many dedicated workers fall apart under the pressure, I’ve only ever questioned whether it is worth the personal cost, especially as we’ve effectively had a 15% pay cut since 2007.