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


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.

Poetry of protest from the Middle East…

Al Khandra

Image from Aljazeera, here.

The poetic tradition is perhaps strongest of all in the Middle East- central to its telling of history, its spirituality, its love songs. Remember that the Bible too is a Middle Eastern document, which explains why (despite the efforts of the translators) around one third of its content was written in poetic form.

We might expect then that the recent troubles within the region might be reflected in poetry- the so called Arab Spring uprisings in Jordan and Egypt, the wars shattering Iraq and the on-going oppression of the Palestinian people.

If so, we hear little of it here in the West. The stories told of the region here are of violence, extremism, and the heroism of our troops.

However, I came across a series of films from AlJazeera called Artscape;Poets of Protest. This how the series describes itself;

Poets of Protest reflects the poet’s view of the change sweeping the Middle East through its intimate profiles of six contemporary writers as they struggle to lead, to interpret and to inspire.

Poetry lives and breathes in the Middle East as in few other places.

In a region long dominated by authoritarian regimes, poetry is the medium for expressing people’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Poets became historians, journalists, entertainers – and even revolutionaries.

Ever since Tunisians chanted Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s If the People Wanted Life One Day poetry has been a key weapon of the Arab Spring, used to taunt regimes’ refusing to see the writing on the wall.

As the revolution spread to Egypt, it turned out that the writing on the wall was also poetry – graffiti by young artists painting the works of poets like al-Shabi or Egypt’s Ahmed Fouad Negm.

Poets of Protest focuses on the writers, their political and artistic struggles, and their work, with beautifully filmed visual interpretations of the poems.

As a matter of interest- this is the poem referred to above that the Tunisians chanted as a protest to their oppressors. Can you imagine a popular movement using poetry in this way in the West?

 “The Will of Life” Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s done bySargon Boulat and Christopher Middleton
Life’s Will
When people choose
To live by life’s will,
Fate can do nothing but give in;
The night discards its veil,
All shackles are undone.
Whoever never felt
Life celebrating him
Must vanish like the mist;
Whoever never felt
Sweeping through him
The glow of life
Succumbs to nothingness.
This I was told by the secret
Voice of All-Being:
Wind roared in the mountains,
Roared through valleys, under trees:
“My goal, once I have set it,
And put aside all caution,
I must pursue to the end.
Whoever shrinks from scaling the mountain
Lives out his life in potholes.”
Then it was earth I questioned:
“Mother, do you detest mankind?”
And earth responded:
“I bless people with high ambition,
Who do not flinch at danger.
I curse people out of step with time,
People content to live like stone.
No horizon nurtures a dead bird.
A bee will choose to kiss a living flower.
If my mothering heart
Were not so tender,
The dead would have no hiding place
In those graves yonder.
(Translated by Sargon Boulat and Christopher Middleton)
This poem appeared in English translation in Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s anthology “Modern Arabic Poetry” (Columbia University Press)

 Here are a couple of the films- you can view the rest here.

Tony Benn on aging towards the left…

Tony Benn

Image from The Guardian

This blog has contained a lot of politics recently- and I almost began this post with an apology. However, I am too angry to apologise really. Whoever said that you should never mix religion and politics was a fool. Followers of Jesus can never absent themselves from politics, but I would argue that our politics inevitably lead us towards the poor, the broken, the sick, the old. It has to be motivated by the motivations of Jesus.

I am seized by a the feeling that we are wasting time. Perhaps this is that point of my own life when the end feels nearer than the beginning, when what we have become seems an urgent issue rather than vague possibilities.

In many ways most of my friends and I started on the left then gradually slid to the right, if only in our passive acquiescence. I hated that in myself, and at least in my thinking, currently I am heading in entirely the opposite direction.

It was such a treat then to read this interview with Tony Benn today, particularly in the wake of yesterdays post about the disengaged politics of Russel Brand. In some senses, Benn’s experience might support Brand’s assertion that democratic politics has failed. Benn became progressively more left wing as he became older, before leaving the House of Commons as he put it “To devote more time to politics.” However, Benn remains a man who believes passionately in the democratic process. Here are a few quotes;

If you look back over history, most progress has come about when popular movements have emerged led by determined men and women. They take tremendous punishment from the establishment, and then if they stick it out they win the argument.”

“How does progress occur? To begin with, if you come up with a radical idea it’s ignored. Then if you go on, you’re told it’s unrealistic. Then if you go on after that, you’re mad. Then if you go on saying it, you’re dangerous. Then there’s a pause and you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have been in favour of it in the first place.” It strikes me that his belief in this process must have sustained him during the long periods in which he was mocked and marginalised.

The financial crash will, he believes, eventually force a change in strategic thinking. “What happened in 2007-8 is now used by the government as an example of the failure of the Labour party. But the changes that were brought about led to a need to think about something more radical, and more radical ideas – on, for instance, public ownership and education – would win popular support if they were presented to the public.” Having been deemed mad and then dangerous, Benn reckons the moment when his ideas are claimed by others is coming.

I really hope he lives to see it…

In the meantime, this is an itch I will continue to scratch. Where it will lead me, I do not know, but I have a conviction that politics can also be pilgrimage, even accepting that getting lost along the way from time to time is inevitable.

Brand and Paxman expose the cracks in capitalism (and ourselves.)

Emily told me to watch this.

If you have an interest in politics/economics/inequality etc, please watch it. I find myself slightly shocked at recommending a clip with a narcissistic smart mouth being interviewed by someone who uses cynicism like a rapier.

But watch it anyway.

Firstly- hooray.

Someone is shaking the tree. The video has gone viral- young people are revolting (if only by clicking the ‘share’ button.)Questions are being asked again about injustice, the operation of power, the distracting divisive effect of the media.The Occupy movement is heard of again in the mainstream media- I worried that it had been blown away like an electronic leaf in a cyber storm of ephemerality.

And perhaps most of all, a voice is speaking for the next generation – my kids – about the possibility of change. No, the NECESSITY of change. I fear that these voices have been silent, overwhelmed by consumerism and the chasing after product; be that a physical thing or a commoditised experience.


Where is the connection to action? What is the vehicle for change? What are the dangerous ideas that will inspire?

The only idea Brand seems to have is this one- do not vote. It is a waste of time.

He may be right- but what do we do instead then?

I hope and pray that my kids might start to find some real alternatives. That they might come to believe that a different world is possible.

Watching Brand and Paxman is like engaging in a conversation between myself and my daughter (in fact it resulted in just that.) Paxman and I failed; after our radicalism, things got worse. Thatcher skewed us ever further into a credit fueled consumerism. The world became more unequal, power more concentrated in the hands of the rich.

We might cast cynical glances at the ideas of the next generation, but it will be their world soon, if it is not already.

Sorley MacLean; Calvary…


Poet’s Pub by Sandy Moffat

The ‘Poets’ Pub’ painting shows those writers known as the ‘Big Seven’ – arguably the most influential Scottish poets of the post-war era – Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Edwin Morgan and Robert Garioch.

Sorley MacLean wrote this in his grapple with the religion of his childhood. I heard a version of it tonight sung by Karen Matheson at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock. And though I lack the knowledge of the fair tongue, the effect was spine chilling.

And the words too…


My eye is not on Calvary
nor on Bethlehem the Blessed,
but on a foul-smelling backland in Glasgow,
where life rots as it grows;
and on a room in Edinburgh,
a room of poverty and pain,
where the diseased infant
writhes and wallows till death.


Chan eil mo shùil air Calbharaigh
no air Betlehem an àigh
ach air cùil ghrod an Glaschu
far bheil an lobhadh fàis,
agus air seòmar an Dùn Èideann,
seòmar bochdainn ’s cràidh,
far a bheil an naoidhean creuchdach
ri aonagraich gu bhàs.

Travelers and the lure of an easy stereotype…

gypsy man

The news here has been full of lurid stories about Gypsies abducting little blond girls. Firstly a child found in Greece, later another in Dublin.

In neither case did we know the full facts but this has not stopped the worlds media from giving these two stories huge attention. In the Greek case they are now stalking a potential biological mother in Bulgaria, who seems to have given away her child as she was not able to support her. It already begins to look as though this story is about poverty, not about Gypsies. Within poor communities, children have always been passed around as a survival strategy so it should not be even slightly surprising.

Next we discovered that the blond kids removed by police from a Roma family in Dublin were returned to their parents after DNA tests. They were removed because they had blond hair.

So why all the hysterical attention, we have to ask?

The idea of an abducted child (even though we do not yet know whether either of these kids have actually been abducted) is an incredibly emotive issue- one that plugs in to our deepest fears as parents. This, I think, is the point. Our deepest fears. 

The swarthy outcasts who are always on the prowl- stealing the lead from our churches, the washing from our lines and our children from their beds. Hiding it all behind a quick wit and a muttered curse.

A few weeks ago there was one of those typical facebook stories handed round, suggesting that Gypsies had been seen in a particular locality watching and waiting for people to go to work so they could break into houses. Everyone was told to on their guard. There was then a line of concerned comments and bits of vitriol. True or not (and lets face it, probably not) we instinctively react to these stories as to a threat that ‘the bogeyman is coming to get you’ when we were children.

no gypsies sign

Here is my conviction; watch for the easy stereotype– particularly when aimed at a marginalised group.

It will almost certainly do damage.

Let us remember that hundreds of thousands of Roma people died in the Nazi death camps.

Let us remember too that traveling folk over the past 30-40 years in the UK have found that their lifestyles have almost been entirely forced right out onto the margins- both in terms of physical location, but also by the way society views them. This became a worry for me- I have met very few Gypsy folk- just a few contacts in my years as a social worker.

We hear stories of violence, bare knuckle fighting, weird weddings with girls dressed up like Disney dolls. We hear no stories of kindness, family, love, people who literally go the extra mile. How can we appreciate the value of the other unless we seek first to understand?

Unless we actually MEET people and share real lives?

This book might be a good place to start;

no place to call home

This is what the author has to say about her book;

My book starts with the story of the site clearance of Dale Farm, but it also goes much further afield, as well as back in history. It goes into the heat of the battle at Dale Farm – but I also examine the bitter conflict at Meriden, in the Midlands, where a small number of Romani Gypsy families also moved onto a field without planning permission, and then became embroiled in a very public dispute with some local residents.

I also travelled to Glasgow Govanhill to talk both to members of the settled community, and relatively newly arrived Roma, about life in the area and how the communities are learning to integrate, as well as travelling to both the Stow and the Appleby horse fairs to visit Gypsies and Travellers in trading and holiday mode. I went to Darlington in the North- East to visit the much respected sherar rom, elder Billy Welch, who organises Appleby Fair and has big dreams about getting out the Gypsy and Traveller vote, and to the North-West to talk to the devastated family of Johnny Delaney, a teenager from an Irish Traveller background who was kicked to death for being ‘a Gypsy’ ten years ago. I travelled down to Bristol to talk to veteran New Traveller Tony Thomson about life on the road in the 1980s, and being caught up the vicious policies of the Conservative government at that time. I also journeyed into East Anglia, where New Travellers, Irish Travellers and English Gypsies have made homes, and north of London, to Luton, to meet some of the destitute Romanian Roma who have created a vibrant community in the heart of England with the help of an inspirational Church of England priest named Martin Burrell. I was also invited to a convention in North Yorkshire by the Gypsy evangelical church, Light and Life, which is growing at an exponential rate and whose influence on nomadic cultures in the UK cannot be underestimated.

I could have travelled more – to Rathkeale, where English–Irish Travellers go for weddings, funerals and to have the graves of their ‘dear dead’ blessed once a year, or to Central and Eastern Europe, where most of the world’s Roma population (and the smaller population of Sinti and other nomadic groups) live. But I chose to concentrate on the experience of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers living in the UK – to go deep, rather than wide. But it was striking that many of those I interviewed would phone me from abroad, or from hundreds of miles away from their actual home, completely comfortable having travelled milto find work – as long as they were with family – or were earning money to keep their family.

The other way that we can encounter the other is through their art- their stories, songs, poems, paintings. I loved this little clip, from a Roma Cultural Festival in Portugal. Here we see real people full of life and pride in who they are, where they have traveled from…

Are we still sending white missionaries to cause problems in black Africa?

I heard about this film recently. It has made waves in the US and Canada- although only a few clips are available in the UK via you tube.

It is a documentary dealing about the impact of evangelists from the American International House of Prayer (IHOP), an organisation that some of us may know from forays into the weird world of Christian satellite TV.

Are we really still sending young white men and women to do this kind of thing? Did we not learn the lessons about from the Victorians about how religion and colonialism (perhaps better understood as globalisation) become a potent toxic mix?

And when violence and intolerance result, do we still blame the victims- as if it is the fault of some kind of black ‘heart of darkness’?

Another analogy that sprang to mind in relation to this shameful process was how the cold war used Africa to play out power games- we exported the tensions and hatreds to places like The Congo and Eritrea. It is almost as if the church is doing the same in relation to homosexuality. IHOP are losing the argument in increasingly secular US, so they are fighting the good theological fight against homosexuality in Uganda.

Lord forgive us.

It does not matter what you believe…


…or does it?

We had a lovely discussion tonight with some friends, sitting round a fire, talking about life and death (as you do.) The death bit because several folk were still in the midst of dealing with loss. The life bit turning on how we understood what our lives were drawing us to.

And because of our shared journeys, the meaning we have found has a lot to do with Jesus, although has been somewhat complicated by our experience of religion…

Some of us have done a lot of (perhaps even too much) unlearning/deconstructing/questioning what this religion has told us we have to believe. Not just the obvious stuff, but the sub-cultural subliminal stuff too that it even harder to come to terms with.

I found myself asking the question- does it really matter what you believe?

We kind of agreed that the religious context that we were familiar with made far too much of belief. We all knew exactly what we were supposed to believe. It was never really stated, but we all knew it was vital to get all your theological cards stacked right. This was what most ‘teaching’ was really aimed at after all.

Strange then that this did not seem to be Jesus’ preoccupation. He was not much interested in making sure that his disciples answered all those complex theological questions that we struggle with now. In fact, he seemed to take quite a lot of pleasure playing with people who came to him looking for absolute theological questions- sending them away with a parable or two- almost like he was saying ‘go and work it out for yourself’.

As I read the gospels, it seems to me that Jesus was much more interested with how faith (rather than belief) brought us to action- particularly how it turned us towards love. Those two commandments- love god and others as yourself.

My conviction is that the obsession with belief often gets in the way of active love. It does not encourage engagement with the world around us, but sits smugly on its own sense of rightness, pompously calling for others to join our club.


At least that is what I believe.

As our discussion went forward we circled again towards death. We talked about the death of a God fearing man, whose passage from life was characterised by fear of God. How he was sure he would not be allowed into heaven as he had done too many bad things. And we began to wonder again about belief…

Our working conclusion was this- belief matters only as far as it becomes the means for us to move, to act, to live, to travel. Even if that journey is the last one.

The rest of it is children playing with marbles.

Pensioner takes on David Cameron, with poetry!

I am not sure about the poetry, but as protest it works very well!



Dear David Cameron,

Thank you for the advice on keeping down my heating bills

You said to wear a jumper to keep out the winter chills

I’m 75 years old, I’ve jumpers older than you!

But none of them do the job when it’s minus bloody two!


I’m actually ten years older than our beloved welfare state

I’ll outlive the thing if times keep on as they have of late

We used to have this quaint idea of solidarity

‘All for one and one for all’ got replaced by ‘me,me,me’


They sold off the utilities; thus privatising heat.

So now us old folks have to choose to warm our rooms or eat.

They sold off all the factories; they sold off all the mills

Now kids are lucky to find work scanning tin cans at tills


They sold off all our railways, and they gave away our trains

It made some folks a lot of cash, but we just felt the pains

They sold off schools and hospitals, now police stations too

Things once owned by all of us, now owned by the likes of you


For decades now your lot have sold what wasn’t yours to sell

Your gang of ham faced charlatans can go to bloody hell!

You tell us now we’re old and cold to ‘wrap up warm’. As ‘eck!

I’ll take my winter scarf and wrap it round your soddin’ neck!


You wouldn’t know a tough choice if it bit you in the arse

To be lectured by you on ‘making do’ is beyond a soddin’ farce

‘Wear extra clothes’ to save some cash? I’d love to, but alack…

You rotten thieving bastards stole the shirt right off my back.


Yours Shiveringly,

An Apocryphal OAP