Learning from Baby P by Sharon Shoesmith

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Reviewed by Anne Goodwin

A civilised society must put structures in place to protect the vulnerable. When the vulnerable are children at risk from the actions or inactions of their parents and other carers, it can be hard to navigate a path between societal neglect and undue meddling in family life. With child protection an inexact science, casualties are perhaps inevitable: children, parents and professionals have all suffered from decisions that, with hindsight, are proved to be overly cautious or reckless. Although safeguarding is the responsibility of all statutory services, it’s the social work profession that sits closest to the boundary between the family and the state. When things go wrong, social workers are often blamed, sometimes to an extent disproportionate to their actual power and responsibilities. When a child dies, it’s often reported as if the social worker has committed the crime, rather than the parents. Perhaps we project onto them our collective guilt at the horrors inflicted in our own neighbourhoods.

Sharon Shoesmith was head of Haringey children’s services when the death of Peter Connolly, a toddler on the child protection register, hit the headlines. Vilified by the Sun newspaper, and used by the leader of the Tory opposition, David Cameron, as evidence of the Labour government’s failure, she was sacked by Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, on live TV. This book, based on her PhD in Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck University, is an attempt to explain how, within a period of only six days, a narrative came to prevail in which:

[t]he death of Baby P was portrayed erroneously as the result of incompetent social workers, a rogue director and a hopeless local authority, in an otherwise sound system.

With approximately one case per week, familial child homicide is rare, yet more common than we might think. So why, on the one hand, aren’t social workers, and other professionals engaged in child protection, applauded for the work they do, and why, on the other hand, do only some deaths result in a media uproar? Drawing on documentation from the media coverage, public comments on social media, emails from senior civil servants, parliamentary debates published in Hansard, OFSTED’s review and Haringey’s Local Safeguarding Children Board’s Serious Case Reviews, Sharon Shoesmith outlines the social, psychological and political factors that contributed to the vilification of the social workers and senior management involved with Peter Connolly.

The maltreatment of children is a particularly painful issue to contemplate, tempting us to, consciously or unconsciously, turn a blind eye to the evidence. Under conditions of stress, we’re more likely to turn to simple, or simplistic, explanations as a defence against thinking, and to project our own feelings of inadequacy on to whoever we can find to blame. This can happen among members of the public, some of whom will have their own pre-existing issues regarding protection failures, politicians and professionals at all levels. In the case of Baby P, alongside vitriolic abuse, there was a public outpouring of grief at a child’s suffering and unnecessary death. In the absence of structures for public mourning and containment, and in a climate of misinformation, the media, and particularly the Sun newspaper, escalated this emotional response to the extent that reasoned expert testimony (such as a letter from almost 70 Haringey headteachers describing Sharon Shoesmith as ‘an outstanding public servant’,) was deemed irrelevant.

An area with high levels of deprivation, and a history of progressive and pioneering Labour politics repeatedly disparaged as evidence of ‘the loony left’, Haringey Council was particularly vulnerable to attack. Coupled with the general denigration of social workers, and the mythology around child protection – with the fantasy that, if appropriate procedures are followed, abuse is not only reduced but eradicated – Haringey Children’s Services were ripe for demonization. Gender politics also played a part, both in terms of concepts of mothering and in the reframing of Sharon Shoesmith’s professional stance in interviews (in which she expressed deep sorrow for what had happened but refused to apologise for something outside her control) as callous and unfeeling.

Most chilling for me was the chapter outlining in forensic detail the interplay between the public, press and politicians in the six days following the convictions of Peter’s mother, her boyfriend and his brother on 11 November 2008. Sharon Shoesmith’s analysis makes clear that, in the context of a powerful cultural trope blaming social workers, parliamentary and local authority politicians had little choice but to reassure the public that this would never happen again (despite this being impossible to guarantee) and to distance themselves from the scapegoats:

Ed Balls could not have told the public that 57 other children had also died in the same year as Peter Connolly, or that Peter had died some 15 months earlier when investigations found that no Haringey social workers should lose their job.

Although it must have been terrifying having hostile journalists camped outside her house, Sharon Shoesmith does not dwell on her own experience of being an object of hatred. Nor, although the Serious Case Review found errors in the practice of both the police and Great Ormond Street Hospital  is she looking to transfer the blame onto other professionals. Her emphasis instead is on what can be learnt. Although, as outlined in the introduction, I was already familiar with the psychological processes that put social workers in a double bind, this account, particularly in her comment on the performative nature of failure, nevertheless caused me to confront my own assumptions:

the statement ‘doctors failed to save a two-year-old child…’ suggests that doctors applied all of their knowledge and skill but were unable to succeed. In contrast ‘social workers failed to save a two-year-old child…’ implies incompetence and perhaps wilful neglect.

Sadly, society can’t learn much from Baby P other than that the collective tendency to blame social workers is so powerful it’s almost impossible to go beyond it. Shockingly, having found an answer in ‘incompetent and neglectful social workers’, there was no inquest into Peter Connolly’s death. Nor are we any further forward in understanding the complex processes leading to a mother being responsible for a child’s death and the lack of success of professionals across a range of disciplines in their endeavours to prevent this. In consequence, familial child homicide remains a mystery and, due to social workers understandably watching their backs, children who could have stayed with their parents have been taken into care.

While, in the final chapter, the author presents a somewhat upbeat list of action points, for me they once again put too much responsibility on to the social work profession for improving their public profile. It’s nevertheless a start and, the more people read this book, the better chance we have as a society to have a grown-up debate about our collective responsibility to protect children. And even if we fail in that regard, at least the next social services manager to be the subject of a witch hunt will find some solace in knowing it’s not personal.

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Anne Goodwin used to work as a clinical psychologist serving people with severe and enduring mental health problems and psychosis. She now writes fiction, blogging at Anecdotal, and her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was reviewed last year on Shiny New Books.

Sharon Shoesmith, Learning from Baby P (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2016). 978-1785920035, 272pp., paperback.

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