Over Christmas I turned on the radio halfway through an interview with Eddie Mair on Radio 4. I didn’t know who he was speaking to but she was making some important and insightful comments about child protection and more broadly, society’s conflicted attitude to children. It was only after some time that I realised Mair was speaking to Sharon Shoesmith, who was Director of Children’s Services in Haringey at the time of Peter Connelly’s death. I’m glad I didn’t know who it was because I was able to listen with an open mind. The interview made me want to read Learning from Baby P.
Peter Connelly was 17 months old when he died with horrific injuries. He was known to social workers, medical staff and police. Subsequently his mother, her boyfriend and his brother were convicted of ‘causing or allowing’ his death.
Learning from Baby P is based on Shoesmith’s PhD thesis on the political, social and cultural response to the death of Peter Connelly (initially known only as Baby P for legal reasons). While she explains the theoretical underpinnings of her work, the book is written for the general reader.
She outlines the political and practice framework in force at the time. There was a model of child protection based on ‘predict and prevent’ – a belief that we could stop children being harmed as long as the correct procedures were followed.
Shoesmith argues that this is not realistic. There is risk and there is uncertainty. Uncertainty is not quantifiable, and it frightens us. It is easy to look at a case with hindsight and see what might have been done differently, but that is not the same as saying the outcome could have been predicted or prevented.
Such a model also provides a false sense of security for social workers. If you have followed all the procedures then you have done the right thing. If anything happens you won’t be to blame. In fact, official reports suggest that social workers at Haringey Council were following procedures and yet took the fall for failings in Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Metropolitan Police.
Shoesmith asks what it was about this death in particular that led to such a public outcry. Although there is no single source for statistics on child deaths (which in itself says something about society’s priorities) the data we have indicate that there were 57 deaths by familial child homicide (non-accidental deaths) in the year Peter Connelly died. Why did this one attract such attention? Horrifying as the details were, it was unfortunately not unique.
Shoesmith considers this in a chapter which deals chronologically with the political and media fallout after the verdict in the Baby P case. We see the opportunism of then Leader of the Opposition David Cameron and the political manoeuvrings of the man we have since come to think of as that nice Ed Balls from Strictly, but who at the time was Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. The Sun editor at the time, Rebekah Brooks, launched a campaign and petition which succeeded in dictating government policy, including the sacking of Shoesmith and frontline staff. (Shoesmith subsequently won an appeal against the sacking.)
Police briefed against social workers and criticism was focused on Haringey Council, which Shoesmith argues was particularly vulnerable because of its identification with the Left and a previous high-profile child death, that of Victoria Climbié. Particularly disturbing is the evidence she has uncovered that Ed Balls’ department was involved in drafting supposedly independent reports and ensuring the outcome that suited their political agenda.
One thing that I was not aware of was that there has never been an inquest into Peter Connelly’s death. The decision was taken on the basis of the number of investigations that had already been carried out, but as Shoesmith states, these were about the roles of the various professionals and agencies, rather than the death itself. Nor has anyone spoken to the three people convicted. What might we have learnt if they had been interviewed? Despite all the thousands of pages that have been written, we still don’t know exactly how or why Peter Connelly died.
Cases like Peter Connelly’s are so shocking and outside most of our experience that we can’t bear to think it is happening. We want social workers to make it all go away and we are angry when they are unable to do so. Blaming individuals reassures us that there is a solution to the problem, that the failings are theirs, and that we are not responsible.
In the Eddie Mair interview, Shoesmith talks about the increasing number of children going into care. There were 50,000 when Peter Connelly died, and there are 70,000 now. If this rate of increase continues, it could be 100,000 by 2020. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? We aren’t even asking the question.
I received a copy of Learning from Baby P from the publisher.
View Learning from Baby P on Goodreads
Want to know more? You can listen to the full Eddie Mair interview with Sharon Shoesmith on BBC iPlayer