Applying social work skills in practice
Applying social work skills in practice

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Applying social work skills in practice

1.4 Learning from mistakes, inquiries, reports and reviews

In the last activity, you explored some social work literature about managing risk. However, there is also the matter of learning from situations that have gone wrong. Social work with children and their families has been learning from inquiries into child deaths since the time of Maria Colwell in 1973. The Munro review was set up following the death of Peter Connelly, and made extensive recommendations for social work practice (Munro, 2011).

You may recall other high-profile inquiries such as those following the deaths of Jasmine Beckford (Blom-Cooper, 1985), and Victoria Climbié (DH and HO, 2003). Each of these had particular key learning points – for example, avoiding focusing on parental issues at the expense of the child (Beckford), and seeing and listening to children (Climbié). The serious case review following the death of Daniel Pelka (Coventry Safeguarding Children’s Board, 2013) identified some key learning points in relation to child protection and domestic violence. You could also look at the Jay report (2014) in relation to the sexual exploitation of minors in Rotherham. Each of these reports will add to your awareness of the possibilities for improving practice.

While the media may scapegoat and blame social work and other professional groups, inquiries and serious case reviews produce a more balanced set of learning points for practitioners and also identify wider issues such as system failure, the responsibilities of managers and the contributions of other professional groups.

Protecting children from harm at the hands of adults is a difficult role in which everyone, including the public, shares responsibility. It is important that, social workers read and learn from inquiries that are relevant to their area of practice; there is always something new to learn or something that reinforces previous knowledge.

In the next activity, you will watch a clip taken from the programme Newsnight (2014). It shows Sharon Shoesmith, who was the Director of Haringey Children’s Services between 2005 and 2008, discussing her role and responsibilities in relation to Peter Connelly’s death. This programme followed the broadcast of Baby P, The Untold Story.

Activity 4 Defensible decisions

Allow about 30 minutes

Watch the Newsnight interview with Sharon Shoesmith, who was director of Haringey Children’s Services at the time of Peter Connelly’s death. She was subsequently sacked and has found it hard to get a job since. Note your own reactions to the interview and the issues it raises for you.

Download this video clip.
Skip transcript: Video 2 Sharon Shoesmith interview

Transcript: Video 2 Sharon Shoesmith interview

INTERVIEWER
In a way, it’s two stories-- the causes of the death and the way the blame was subsequently apportioned. No one doubts that Sharon Shoesmith ended up shouldering a lot of the public venom. You saw her in the film, and she’s here with us now. Good evening.
SHARON SHOESMITH
Thank you.
INTERVIEWER
That’s probably the most favourable media coverage you’ve had since the Baby P case.
SHARON SHOESMITH
Absolutely.
INTERVIEWER
It doesn’t mean there aren’t difficult questions for you and for Haringey to answer about the case. Let me, though, before we get some of those, just ask what has become of your life since?
SHARON SHOESMITH
Well, I haven’t worked again since that day. And since the 1st of December, 2008, I’ve not been able to work again, so I’m not able to earn a living.
INTERVIEWER
Have you applied for jobs?
SHARON SHOESMITH
I have applied for several hundred jobs. People are either afraid of attracting the tabloids, in particular The Sun, or if it’s child-related or government-related, they’re afraid of attracting maybe parents, criticism from parents, or whatever. Even to invigilate an examination, for example, children will go home and say, you know who was there today.
So it’s been a closed door just about everywhere, but I’ve taken up studying. I did a psychotherapy course to begin with, and I’m now in the final stages of a PhD. So I try to keep busy.
INTERVIEWER
We should be clear because at no point do you think you were the real victim in this whole sorry saga, do you? Or do you? Because I think some of the public felt, hang on, the baby is the victim, not the head of children’s services.
SHARON SHOESMITH
Absolutely Peter was the victim. Peter was a victim of familial child homicide, but you know, we’ve all been victims in this. And I suppose what I would want to say to you is that the film absolutely leaves me just horrified, and yet I was in it, and yet I knew most of what was in the film. But in many ways, I think we have to step back, all of us, step back from this, put to one side what we think the story was, and begin to reflect on that and reflect on our different investments in it. Because I think we’re all victims in it.
And familial child homicide is a very serious social issue, and I think during the story, people began to learn something about it. And people were horrified at what they were learning about the realities of familial child homicide.
INTERVIEWER
Let’s go onto some of the difficult questions, because even though the documentary obviously finds, as do most people who have looked at it, that there were multiple failures through a number of different agencies, not just yours.
SHARON SHOESMITH
Yes, yes.
INTERVIEWER
That doesn’t mean there weren’t failures at yours, doesn’t it?
SHARON SHOESMITH
Yes, yes.
INTERVIEWER
You would accept there were serious failures at Haringey?
SHARON SHOESMITH
It depends how we’re going to define serious, doesn’t it? This is difficult if you say serious failures. What is a serious failure?
INTERVIEWER
Well, for example, Baby P’s visited unannounced by the social worker in June. Face is bruised, mother claims he’s been in a fight with another child.
Your social worker is sceptical, calls the police. The police say the child should be taken away. There have been other cases, two other cases, in which this injured child has been taken to hospital, and a senior social worker intervenes and says, no, leave him with the parent, leave him with the mother.
SHARON SHOESMITH
Well, that’s a very diluted version, really, of a debate between professionals, and at all times, professionals agreed with the decisions that were made. That’s absolutely clear.
It’s hindsight. It’s risk.
INTERVIEWER
I understand that this happens.
SHARON SHOESMITH
It’s all those things.
INTERVIEWER
But the cumulative errors in the case of this child--
SHARON SHOESMITH
Absolutely, absolutely. Yes.
INTERVIEWER
They were just astonishing to most people.
SHARON SHOESMITH
It is breathtaking.
INTERVIEWER
And you can’t pin it on Maria Ward, the social worker. It wasn’t one rogue social worker who malevolently didn’t bother to do her job properly. If it’s a system problem, if it’s something about the way the thing operates, isn’t it the person who’s running that system who’s responsible, who’s responsible for children’s services, who ultimately has to take the blame?
SHARON SHOESMITH
It’s a simplistic explanation, I feel. It’s too simplistic a position.
INTERVIEWER
What is simplistic about the notion of people who are earning more than $100,000 a year taking responsibility for tragic outcomes that occur on their watch?
SHARON SHOESMITH
I believe I took responsibility, and I believe throughout that I was entirely accountable to my role and to what it was I needed to do. You have to separate that out from the public emotion and say the public were absolutely understandable as to how they felt. But you can’t be accountable to a public who’ve been told lies, who’ve been told about things that didn’t actually happen quite like that.
INTERVIEWER
And in what way were you accountable? And this gets to the heart of the really interesting conversation about whether the mob just searched for blame, or whether there’s some sensible process by which we--
SHARON SHOESMITH
Yes.
INTERVIEWER
When you say you were accountable, what does that mean?
SHARON SHOESMITH
As the director of children’s services, I would be accountable to the council, to the chief executive and the leader of the council, to look in detail as to our conduct, our conduct being the social workers. What was the social worker conduct in this case? And we looked at that in some considerable depth, and once we had Eddie Carme’s report, we took that away, and looked again in minute detail of what it was these social workers had done or not done.
Now, it being Haringey council, there was a lot of concern about are we sacking these social workers. Clearly, that would have been a big concern for Haringey. And we undertook a system-- I mean, we used Haringey’s system to look at their conduct in the case, and the chief executive, the leader of the council, were all in agreement that there was no gross misconduct.
Now, this is very important--
INTERVIEWER
Right, and that’s been-- that is the crucial thing.
SHARON SHOESMITH
That is intent and willfulness, gross misconduct.
INTERVIEWER
There wasn’t gross misconduct.
SHARON SHOESMITH
There was none.
INTERVIEWER
That is why the social workers shouldn’t be sacked. You’ve agreed that.
SHARON SHOESMITH
Yes.
INTERVIEWER
That’s why someone else higher up has to take responsibility. And I just wonder whether the public don’t have a right sometimes to say, look, we don’t like the outcome of this. This does not meet a standard that we expect. And we expect people in responsible jobs, who actually set up the systems which have failed or let someone down, we expect them to take the can. And it may be sometimes a bit unfair on a politician to have to resign a job because something in their department has gone wrong or a senior person in children’s services to have to resign a job even though it wasn’t a personal mistake. It’s just somebody has to take--
SHARON SHOESMITH
So it’s public accountability is what you’re talking about. Public accountability.
INTERVIEWER
Well, it’s making sure that the people in authority have a certain incentive not to let these things happen.
SHARON SHOESMITH
But you can’t be publicly accountable to a public who is ill informed. Ill informed and misinformed.
INTERVIEWER
I think if they were informed, they would have said it doesn’t matter. Whether it was 60 visits or 17 visits, it was too many visits, and the outcome was all too tragic.
SHARON SHOESMITH
But we can’t simply sack people. Now, you have to remember that it’s said in the film one child every 10 days. My understanding is one child every week.
INTERVIEWER
This is dying at the hands of the parent.
SHARON SHOESMITH
Yes. And I think the real issue here is about familial child homicide, and it’s about all of our views of familial--
INTERVIEWER
Would you say for other cases--
SHARON SHOESMITH
Just let me--
INTERVIEWER
Would you say--
SHARON SHOESMITH
Just let me finish. It’s about all of our views on this and how we feel about this, about harm to children. And Ed Balls--
INTERVIEWER
But we know how we feel about harm to children.
SHARON SHOESMITH
Just let me finish this. Yes but I think maybe we need reminder. Now, Ed Balls could not have gone on the television and said this is a tragic case, which it was, and 500 children have died between Victoria Climbie and Peter. This is a serious issue for our society.
End transcript: Video 2 Sharon Shoesmith interview
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Comment

The interviewer focuses on two issues: the causes of Peter’s death and the question of where blame should be apportioned. Did you think that Sharon Shoesmith made any progress in communicating her view that responsible accountability was different from apportioning blame? Or did she justify her view that the public was misinformed? She was clear about Haringey’s decision not to sack the social workers, who she argued were not guilty of misconduct. However, she was maybe less successful in defending her own role. She also attempted to convey the size of the problem of familial child homicide as a serious issue for society to reflect on rather than react to in a knee-jerk way in particular cases.

The interviewer emphasises the fact that all the agencies failed. (It can be argued in relation to Peter Connelly, the issues in paediatric services were as significant to his death as the shortcomings in the social work or police processes.) This joint failure was accepted by Sharon Shoesmith.

It is accepted that the central victim of the situation was Peter and that cumulative errors contributed to his death. The interviewer talked in terms of blame, while Sharon Shoesmith was trying to unpack the issue of public accountability. She argues that the media, police and politicians are all accountable and that the public debate should be more ‘honest’.

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