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…

Sharon Shoesmith speaks out again…

Regular readers of this blog will know that I earn a living in social work- specifically, I manage mental health services, working mainly with vulnerable adults.

But the whole social work world has been hugely affected by the tragic circumstances of the death of Peter Connelly at the hands of his mother, her partner and a lodger.

And by the media circus that followed it.

It was interesting to hear Sharon Shoesmith, the former director of Social Work services for Haringey who was sacked following political intervention, speaking to a House of Commons Committee looking into the way we protect children.

She made the following points (some of which I had previously described- here.)

In her opening remarks to MPs, Ms Shoesmith said the statistics on child murders were shocking – and had stayed the same for more than 30 years.

The Baby Peter case had led to big changes in children’s social services, she said.

“For children, the impact has been far-reaching. Since 2008 the number coming into care has increased 30%. The number we have subject to a child protection plan has doubled. Yet this wider net seems to have had little impact on the number of children who die.”

She said in the year Peter had died – 2007 – a total of 54 other children in England had also died at the hands of their parents or other family members.

In the decade from 1999 to 2009, 539 children had died in this way, she said.

“These are shocking statistics and statistics that are not known. They are too abhorrent for us to consider,” she said.

She is right, I think, to point to the negative effect of the blame culture on those seeking to protect children.

The simple truth is that scapegoating obscures the real issues, and potentially real solutions.

Sharon Shoesmith- trial by media…


Sharon Shoesmith is in the news again. check out this piece from the Guardian which describes some of the twistings and turnings  in the lead up to her sacking.

I have written several pieces about the event in Haringey around the tragic death of a baby called Peter at the hands of her mother and two men, whilst under supervision of the social work department. (See here and here for example.)

Shoesmith was paid a lot of money to manage a complex and pressured social care system for children. Her performance was regarded as exemplary- in bringing positive change in a council not unfamiliar with scandal. She had the full support of experts, local political leaders, and her own staff- that is until a poor performance at a press conference in front of tabloid journalists baying for blood. Blood that was duly served up.

You could say that a leader of a system that fails has to take the consequences.

But again I find myself asking questions of a society that appoints social workers to care for it’s most needy and vulnerable members, then vilifies the profession at every opportunity, whilst at the same time, services remain underfunded, and undervalued.

And there is a chronic shortage of staff who are willing to place themselves in the firing line as social workers doing child protection.

It remains to be seen as to whether Sharon Shoesmith will win her case in the High Court. But many people will hope that out of this process will come some clarity, and debate over the real issues.

Because the idea that kids die in our country because of a bad set of professionals not doing their job properly- it may sell tabloids, but it will not protect children.

Baby P- Sharon Shoesmith’s story…


See also previous posts on this subject here and here.

In the wake of the tradgic death of the small boy known as ‘baby P’ in Haringey, director of Childrens Services Sharon Shoesmith found herself in the middle of a media storm. This well respected former teacher (who had an impressive track record in turning around education in the local authority) did not resign, but was eventually sacked from her post by the council leadership. Given the pressure, they perhaps had little choice- someone must be responsible for this dreadful thing- and as Shoesmith was the boss, the buck stopped with her.

This despite an unprecedented letter of support from many of the head teachers within Haringey for Shoesmith.

Yesterday, as the dust begins to settle, and those in the media looking for scapegoats have moved on to the next media feeding frenzy, we begin to have a chance to consider what really happened in this case, and what actions may be necessary to try to avoid it happening again.

Things have already changed in relation to the protection of children across the UK. Quite simply, the threshold for removing children from home and placing them in care has shifted. We now remove one third more that we were doing a year ago. Society (and no doubt the media) has a decision to make as to whether this is acceptable.

Sharon Shoesmith herself was interviewed on BBC radio 4 womens hour. It was a fascinating interview- she was put under considerable pressure by Jenny Murray the interviewed, but made some telling points.

You can listen again to the interview for a while on this link.

Here’s a summary of some of the detail;

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. No-one has been charged with murder. 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 presence. No other photos released of family, or child at first.

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 finding by the same agency.

There was then an interesting discussion as to whether Shoesmith, as the leader of a service that failed to protect Baby P was responsible in some way for the death of the child. Shoesmith answered the question very well, asking searching questions about the role of leadership in public life. She described sleepless nights, long days from 6AM to 10PM dodging the media. How she had even considered suicide. But she did not kill this child. She was responsible for a service who tried to protect, but failed.

She also made a point about the low status that our society awards to staff trying to protect kids- and Social workers in particular- asking which other profession would have been at the brunt of this treatment from the press?

Finally, she made this point, which we all should bear in mind-

Each week, at least one child is killed by a member of family in the UK.

Many many more are saved following interventions. In many of these cases, we can never be sure whether actions to protect were proportionate and necessary- we rely on multi diciplinary discussion and decisions. We will NEVER be able to save all the people we work with.

Should Shoesmith (or other staff) have been subjected to the trial-by-media (a notoriously inaccurate judicial process?) I think not.

Should they have lost their jobs? Perhaps this is a response commensurate with the awful loss of a child’s life. But if this applies to Shoesmith- then should it apply to many other directors of social services across the country?

Or is this issue more to do with how we as a society manage the care of our children and allow media generated hysteria to fuel our decision making?