Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Sharon Shoesmith Affair

A child dies in the inner city. A hundred and fifty years ago, in Dickens' day, it's not a problem; it's commonplace. Tuberculosis is the Captain of the men of death but there are plenty of others in the ranks. Cholera, smallpox, measles all carry away the children together with malnutrition, neglect and cruelty. The remedy? You have a lot; children are easily got.

But diseases have been done away with. We have vaccines, clean water, warm and dry houses, clean air. Contraception. Children have become few and precious. Almost gods.

So, a child dies in the inner city and someone must be to blame. Baby Peter Connelly, who had been seen 60 times by social services, was found dead in 2007 with over 50 injuries. In this case the culprit is easily found. The mother is dissolute, a wastrel, a self-gratifying good-for nothing with a live-in boyfriend unconcerned for the by-blow of a former beau. And there's a pedophile-rapist brother who's no better. All three set upon baby Peter. They do not feed him, do not care, but use him as an ash tray to stub their cigarettes out on. These three ignorant young people are responsible for intolerable cruelty and they will be punished. They will go to prison.

Surely someone should have done something to stop it. Aren't there social workers whose job it is to prevent this? Don't we all remember the intrusion of health visitors poking their noses when our children were born? They should have been spending their time where they were really needed.

But social work is in a mess in the inner cities. The case load is too high and recruitment is poor. No-one wants to work in the inner cities. They recruit and train people with 'life-skills' rather than with academic qualifications. Then they find that they can't follow the instructions. They take cups of tea with the parents and are easily taken in. Bruises? He fell down the stairs. He's clumsy. It's just what any adventurous child gets. And the doctors are no better. There is pressure on the A&E; they are trying to reduce junior doctors' hours; there are plenty of excuses. Besides, the buck stops somewhere else. As for the police, despite the case being reported to the police, no case officer had been assigned four months later.

Just where does it stop? Sharon Shoesmith had a staff of more than a thousand, a budget of £100 million and an annual salary of £100,000. In the aftermath of the Baby P case she fought to keep all three and refused to resign. At a press conference following the trial of the mother and the two live-in brothers (about whom the social services knew nothing- though a parenting class did and declined to share the information with the social services on the grounds of 'confidentiality') Sharon Shoesmith made a statement that came over very poorly. She was called cold and calculating, arrogant and smug.

Ms Shoesmith, 55, from Co Antrim in Northern Ireland, spent most of her professional life in education rather than social services. She rose from being a teacher to a school inspector and worked in the school improvement division, monitoring schools with serious weaknesses and requiring special measures. When she was appointed by Capita – the private company that oversees the borough’s schools – to be the director of children's services in Haringey in 2005, she promised to lower the number of children who were taken into care by stepping in earlier with help if needed.

There has been a tension in Social Services. There has been much anger about children being taken away from their parents and put into the care of the local authority or with foster parents. Damned if you do; damned if you don't is the position.

Shoesmith stood back from the problem and took an objective view. “It has really shocked me how much of the media has missed the point that this is a horrendous tragedy and everybody obviously is horribly shocked by it, but there is so much blame, there is so much anger and hatred out there.” And indeed the popular press made it a cause celebre.

There must be some doubt as to the wisdom of conflating social work and education under one banner of "Children's Services". Did they do it to beef up the ministry that Ed Balls, late Chief Secretary of the Treasury and a Gordon Brown favorite for future Chancelor, must take while he does his spell in a 'spending ministry'? The idea was generated by the Children Act 2004, which after the Victoria ClimbiƩ inquiry recommended that education and safeguarding be combined to increase communication between the two.

But social work and education are very different beasts, and Sharon Shoesmith, with no background in social work was perhaps not a very wise appointment to head up one of the most difficult social work jobs in the UK. Nevres Kemal, a former social worker who gave warning about Haringey council’s social services failings six months before Baby P died, believes that Ms Shoesmith was misled by her managers in the case. She reports having told the director of children’s services: “I’m not going to shut up. You don’t know what is going on in social services, what is being concealed from you.”

The October, after Baby P died, Ofsted gave Haringey a three-star rating out of four, saying it provided a good service for children, but for Shoesmith the damage had been done by the press conference. On November 13 the Sun demanded sackings, and vowed not to rest until it got them. If Shoesmith wouldn't go, it said, the government had to put in a new boss. "A price must be paid for his little life, and we will not rest until that price has been paid by those responsible."

Ed Balls ordered an independent review, and Haringey council made a formal apology. Sixty-one headteachers wrote to the papers in support of Shoesmith a couple of days later, but they were swept away by a campaign notable for the ugliness it permitted in some of its readers. On 26 November the Sun delivered a petition with 1.2m signatures to Downing Street, demanding that those involved be sacked.

At 6pm on Sunday night 30th November, the independent report was delivered to Balls. It made devastating reading. It identified insufficient strategic leadership and management oversight; failure to ensure full compliance with post-ClimbiƩ recommendations; a lack of communication between social care, health and police authorities; a conflict of interest in the serious case review; failing to identify children at immediate risk of harm; inconsistent quality of frontline work; inconsistent and often poor record-keeping; too much reliance on quantitative v qualitative data.

She only realised she had been replaced when Balls announced it on the news, on 1 December. A week later the council announced that she had been dismissed with immediate effect, without compensation, or payment in lieu of notice.

Yesterday Shoesmith won her case for unfair dismissal. Judges at the Court of Appeal said then children's secretary Ed Balls and her employers, Haringey Council, had been "procedurally unfair" when they sacked her three years ago. The judges allowed Ms Shoesmith's appeal against the former children's secretary because "the secretary of state did not afford Ms Shoesmith the opportunity to put her case". In short, she was denied the elementary fairness which the law requires," they said.

They also rejected a submission that the situation had been too urgent to allow for a fairer procedure to be adopted. In the case of Haringey, the judges said: "We were unanimously of the view that Haringey's procedures were tainted by unfairness."

This case is a good example of trial by the media. The doctor concerned with missing Baby P's broken back voluntarily erased herself from the General Medical Register. There have been no disciplinary actions for the police. Sharon Showsmith will not be reinstated but she might receive a hefty financial package of compensation.

1 comment:

Burke said...

Here in the U.S., I would expect the results to be pretty much the same for such an instance to the extent that public officials were involved. But if private parties were involved, I would expect to see them being hung out to dry-- law suits, disciplinary actions against their occupational licenses, and even prosecutions.

That's because most public officials here are people who could not cut it in the so-called private sector. They are very understanding where other public officials are concerned and vengeful as hell against those who have been successful in the real world where they were failures.