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.

6 thoughts on “Sharon Shoesmith and the shadow cast by the death of children…

  1. Whilst I have no idea of the full effects, I have seen the effects of the difficulties within Social Work and other front facing jobs. Usually these are caused by the hierarchy with their rules and regulations who have no idea whatsoever, what it’s like on the shop floor! What I DO struggle with though, is the money aspect! IF this lady was unfairly dismissed and the courts found in her favour, then surely she should be reinstated? I know/we know of people closer to home who have also had issues with their children, but have been dismissed for lesser issues. The money compensated should surely be put to funding all the poor wee souls in this country that have nothing. This case, is rewarding someone over the top for doing the initial job she was paid for. By all means pay her what she was due in wages. The position should have been reinstated and the compensation figures that are usually way too huge for us to comprehend could be used to help support single parents who have less than the basics to live on? This country is becoming very money orientated with their compensation culture. It’s not always about the money! I also can’t help feeling that this lady may well have been paid a retainer until the hearing? That would make it even worse surely? Sorry to rant, but money always appears to be the answer. It’s not being dealt into the right quarters.

    • HI Karlie- it is hard not to agree with you in general about the money thing! However- in this case she was not getting paid in the interim- and if the sacking was ever fair, why not also sack the head of police and head of health board, both of whose services later got a good thrashing?

      Shoesmith had been in post about a year- previously she had transformed the local education services, and won the admiration of the head teachers so much that they wrote a joint letter in support of her. She has not been able to work since, and is very unlikely ever to work again.

      Also, we do not know what she has been paid now. This figure is set by court, but it has been suggested that the total amount is less than £600K, but this includes the legal costs that the council will have to pay, and a contribution towards her pension fund. Let us say that leaves about £300K. She was probably earning around £80 a year, and she will not be able to work again- this is then probably considerably less than her salary until the end of her career.

      Having said all that- I do agree with you about the litigious culture we have fallen into, but the irony is that if Balls had followed due process she may still have lost her job, and even she had subsequently won an appeal at an employment tribumal, the maximum award she could have been given is three months pay.

      Its a mad mad world ain’t it?

  2. Very thoughtful and considered. As long as there is humanity, there is hope but as long as there is human nature, cases such as this will happen again. I agree with your stance on social workers but passionately believe we should be doing more for pre-school children to enhance their life chances. It was a privilege to read this. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Children who are killed by their parents; we still have so much to learn… | this fragile tent

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