Sharon Shoesmith and the shadow cast by the death of children…

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I have written quite a lot on this blog (see here and here for example) about the tragic death of Peter Connolly, known as ‘Baby P’. Although I have never worked as a full time child protection worker, I know enough about the inner workings of social work departments as they try to protect vulnerable children and adults to find a reflective distance on all that has flowed from these dreadful events. The events went something like this;

April 2007, concerns raised about parenting. Investigations started, child placed on at risk register

June- SWer raised concerns about injuries. Suspicion that these were non-accidental, but no evidence. Specialist medical assessments not conclusive. ‘Fell on stairs.’

Hv’s Swer visits- not enough to meet threshold for care proceedings- three multi-agency child protection conferences. Robust discussion (police later said ‘we told them to take action’) but course of action agreed by all.

CPS- not enough evidence for charge for neglect- this decision made the week the child died. Baby P seen Monday be SW, Wed(medics), Thurs, SWer again, Friday, dead.

At some point over last 48 hours, there was a brutal attack on the child. Swers had no knowledge of the two men living in the home- partner and lodger. Boyfriend hid when professionals visited- in a wardrobe and also in a trench in the back garden! Went to great lengths to hoodwink professionals.

The mother gave the impression that she was willing to work with staff- leading to optimism.

Then the media stuff exploded. The story became about Shoesmith- she was the visible face of criminal neglect by (primarily at first) social workers.

Later investigations launched into health services and police, finding significant failings. Media not nearly as interested.

Ofsted and government departments knew what had happened days after- they were informed. Serious case reviews happened, made recommendations. Months later (as the press and political response gathers like a storm) ofsted chose to make another inspection, which can be read here. They gave no prior warning of the contents of the report or opportunity to discuss the accuracy of the findings to Shoesmith prior to publishing- very unusual. The report was in stark constrast to earler findings by the same agency.

Since these events, numbers of children being removed from families and taken into care have doubled.

At the same time, child protection departments are finding huge problems recruiting social workers to do the work- Birmingham social work director recently described children in his area as ‘not safe’ because of their problems recruiting.

Yesterday there was another twist in the case. You may remember that the Director of Haringey social services was summarily sacked by the then Children’s Secretary Ed Balls.  It was then no surprise to me that the previously highly regarded Shoesmith won her case before an industrial tribunal.

It appears to have been a surprise to Balls though, who said this yesterday (see BBC report here)-

“An independent report said there were disastrous failings in Haringey children’s services. They said the management was at fault. Sharon Shoesmith was the director of children’s services and so of course it leaves a bad taste in the mouth that the person who was leading that department, and responsible, ends up walking away with, it seems, a large amount of money.”

Well that is what happens Ed when your actions are described like this be the court of appeal;

The Court of Appeal concluded Ms Shoesmith had been “unfairly scapegoated” and her removal from office in December 2008 by the then Children’s Secretary Ed Balls had been “intrinsically unfair and unlawful”.

I heard recently that the average length of a doctors career is around 28 years. The average length of a social workers career is (wait for it) 8 years.

We start off with such hopes- we can make a difference, we can do a job that is genuinely based on helping others, on making lives better, on reaching into the mess of humanity and saving people from destruction. Pretty soon we realise that we do very little of these things- we become bureaucrats, societal police. We are pushed towards engaging with people not as humans, but through the machinery of state. And most of our time is spent in front of computer screens punching in data, much which is done to ‘cover our backs’.

One interesting fact about soldiers fighting in wars appears to be that when wider society does not support the war effort (think Vietnam or Iraq) then cases of post traumatic stress disorder go way up. I have known a whole lot of social workers who have come apart at the seams.

My first job was as a mental health social worker in busy metropolitan Bolton. Dreadful things happened weekly- murders, suicides, drug addiction, violence. We discovered people living in terrible squalor and tried to form relationships with people who had forgotten that such things were possible. We worked really hard, and I would say with hindsight did some pretty amazing work given the resources and circumstances of our practice.

There were 4 of us were in my small team. One was well on the way towards being sacked as he was becoming increasingly erratic, before he was attacked by a man with a hammer. He never worked again. Another had a mental breakdown and became manic. She lost her social work registration, and still has problems seeing the world straight. She works now as a part time support worker. Another man had his problems with depression, before becoming a social work trainer, then retiring.

I am the only one of the four of us still working as a registered social worker 20 odd years later, and I am not pretending to have got away free of damage.

And we did not work directly with children.

I talk about these things not because I am out to curry sympathy, but more because what social workers do in our society no one else does. We need to decide then whether what we do is a valuable part of how our society works, and if it is, whether we are happy to see a group of trained professionals who have developed skills and a firm value base continuing this, or…

There is evidence that things may be turning. David Cameron actually got a round of applause for social workers at the Conservative Party Conference this year. There is talk of investing in new training (but reducing it to one year. Social workers currently train for 4 years.)

As I have said before however, do not pretend that babies will still not die at the hands of their abusers. No system will ever prevent all deaths. And hindsight will always tell us that things could/should have been done. Remember instead all those other children who are alive because of what social workers have done- and consider what you would have done in their place.

Sharon Shoesmith wins her appeal…

I do not often write about my day job on this blog. You could say that I am usually keen to leave it behind and think about other things. But I have been a social worker for over 20 years now- during a time when social work in the UK has changed dramatically.

One thing that has remained rather constant however has been the fact that the profession of social work is an easy target for media witch hunts- who portray us as a bunch of vegetarian, liberal, arty-farty, moralising layabouts who interfere in peoples lives for fun. They damn us if we do interfere and lynch us when the view is that we do not interfere enough. It is a familiar whinge in any staff room.

And in response to this kind of pressure, politicians have increasingly turned to regulation as a means of dealing with all aspects of social care. Regulation and performance targets have crept into everything that we do- supported by all sorts of recording systems.

I have always worked within mental health services, and increasingly, my staff have little time to put to what we used call ‘social work’- the soft therapeutic activities, community work and capacity building that we valued so highly. These things simply do not give outcomes that are measurable and so justifiable in the current climate.

At times, the pressure to cope with both the demands of the system, and the pain and distress of real people in crisis can be overwhelming. This might be a difficult thing for people outside the system doing other kinds of work to understand- but on a personal basis I have known countless colleagues suffer different kinds of emotional and physical breakdowns- few people manage to sustain front line social work beyond their 40′s, and in America, CNN announced that social work was about the most stress full job you can do.

Here are a couple of quotes I have used before. They date from 1998, but believe me, nothing has changed- and the current financial crisis in Local Authorities has made things worse.

“Modern social work is in a state of crisis. It has always been a profession towards which society has displayed ambivalence and it is now grossly underfunded and understaffed. Tragedies and subsequent vilification of social workers and their managers are reported with increasing frequency. The profession attempts to function in an environment of obstructive administrative ‘systems’, … severe financial restrictions and conflicting demands …” –Davies, p. 9, Stress in Social Work (1998, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

“Because they deal in actual and emotional injustice, and actual and psychic injury, the reality for social workers much of the time is that while they may bring about some relief or improvement, the most that they may hope for is some damage limitation, particularly in areas such as child abuse and criminality.” –Davies, p. 19, Stress in Social Work (1998, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

One thing that highlights the state of the profession as much as anything are the fairly frequent media outcries that surround tragic events involving the death of children or vulnerable people who are known to social work. The most infamous one in recent years has been the death of baby Peter Connolley at the hands of his mother and mothers boyfriend. It is a dreadful story that breaks your heart- a tiny boy whose whole life was characterised by pain and neglect, leading to his eventual death before his second birthday.

Inquiries revealed systematic failures on the part of social work, health and police. I wrote a lot about this at the time- see here and here for example.

Very quickly the story centred on the head of social work for the council responsible for Peter’s care- Sharon Shoesmith. She was previously regarded as an extremely competent and committed leader, praised by regulatory bodies, but now she had no chance. Trial first by media, then subjected to a shameful personal attack by government minister Ed Balls, and finally sacked by the council with next to no chance to defend herself. There were several other dismissals of workers after this event. Interestingly enough, despite all these contacts-

78 contacts with health workers, doctors, social workers and police
2 health visitors
3 doctors
1 mental health worker
1 policewoman
4 social workers
1 family friend;
1 childminder
10 hospital visits (to at least 3 hospitals)
4 visits to clinic
5 parenting classes (the last two weeks before his death)
Seen by GP 14 times
Seen by health visitor 7 times
Mother seen by mental health worker 4 times

…despite all these other agencies being actively involved and in a position to raise concerns that might have saved the life of this child, not one single worker from the other professions has been dismissed. The report was equally critical of both the health department and police- who had a joint responsibility to protect.

Perhaps this is for good reasons- I am not party to the facts of how individual workers performed their roles, but I do know a lot about how these large bureaucratic institutions work- how there are always a hundred demands for your attention, and how responsibility easily becomes diluted in the mess and pressure of it all.

I wrote a lot about my feelings about this at the time- here and here.

Since this event, the numbers of children removed from the care of their parents and injected into the all ready over pressured  child care system have doubled. There has been no public debate about this- in terms of whether this is desirable, whether the outcomes for our children are better, and whether the resources needed to achieve good outcomes are readily available (they are not.)

Well, today Sharon Shoesmith won her case in the Court of Appeal against her dismissal. I am not all surprised- I predicted she would win in my earlier post. The BBC’s account of how the case was won is here- it makes devastating reading.

In parliament, David Cameron launched a surprise attack on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who some say had not been well enough briefed.

Within minutes of their exchanges, a government minister was on the phone to the leader of Haringey Council George Meehan asking if he was going to suspend Ms Shoesmith. He refused.

Ed Balls had a completed serious case review on his desk, outlining the many mistakes and problems involved in the care of Peter Connelly.

But, apparently to head off a growing storm, he ordered another review led by Ofsted to look at safeguarding practice across the health agencies, police and children’s services in Haringey.

He demanded its inspection and report be completed in three weeks, an unprecedentedly short time for a process usually taking four months.

Normal procedures were dispensed with including the opportunity, usually given, for children’s services departments and their senior officials to read a draft report and challenge provisional findings.

During the inspection, the Sun newspaper delivered a petition and tens of thousands of letters to Downing Street, demanding Ms Shoesmith’s removal, with Mr Balls agreeing to be photographed receiving them gratefully.

Ed Balls has defended himself (here) and the government intend to challenge the decision. Balls seems to be saying that he (as minister) should be able to act as he thinks fit- in this instance, this amounts to ignoring employment law.

But the bottom line is this- the mess of wonderful humanity that makes up our societies will always contain dark secrets. Bad things will be done to innocents by damaged and despotic people. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, these things will not be preventable.

Sometimes we will make mistakes. These will be both systemic, organisation mistakes, and by individual workers in all the different professions. We need to learn from these experiences- and recognise the resource implications- in terms of training, money, personnel. Increased regulation will not achieve improvements alone.

To blame one profession (and individuals within it) in a knee jerk and blind fashion will not in any way contribute to the protection of children- if anything, it will make things worse. It will reduce the pool of talented individuals who want to do the job, and populate the social care machine with risk averse automatons whose role is to meet narrow performance targets and to restrict liability wherever possible.

Sometimes I think we are there already- but then I see a moment of real grace and kindness involving one of my colleagues, and I hope again…