There was an article in the Daily Herald
a couple of years ago after a couple of shocking and tragic cases where young children died - one, five years old, was beaten, thrown down a flight of stairs, then left to die alone in her bedroom. The other, two years old, was found dead in his bed after drinking methadone that belonged to his registered drug-addict parents. The article asked various people what needed to change to stop these tragedies from happening in the future. What Maggie Mellon, from the charity Children 1st, said was this:
"It is quite clear from all of these recent cases that social work or agencies alone in that way are not going to be able to fully protect children in the community, " she said. "People will think the authorities will deal with it - we are saying that child protection is everybody's business
I understand why so many people are saying that 'heads must roll' in Haringey Council's social services department after the unimaginably horrific death of Baby P, but I don't agree. There is always an urge to try and make sense in this sort of situation by identifying someone whose fault was responsible, and against whom action can be taken in order to make sure nothing like this happens ever again.
Lots of people, for example, have said that Sharon Shoesmith, Director of Children's and Young People's Services in Haringey, ought to resign - she's in charge, so she is to blame. But here's what 68 headteachers have to say about her work
“Should the Child P case result in her loss from the borough, then our children and young people will lose one of their most effective, determined and committed champions.”
“Initially, in her role of director of education, Shoesmith transformed a demoralised education service, derided by many headteachers, into one with which we are now proud to be associated.
“The exceptional rate of improvement of many of the borough’s schools would not have been possible without the support of the service that Ms Shoesmith rebuilt, revitalised and led.
“Since more recently becoming the director of Haringey’s Children and Young People’s Service, Shoesmith has continued to work relentlessly and with a determination that the service she leads and develops ensures best practice in providing education, care, support and protection for all of our young people.”
There's no reason why these headteachers, the people who work with her and know her work, would choose this time to defend her publicly if they didn't sincerely believe it (and the exceptional rate of improvement is confirmed by independent stats). The logic that Haringey Council is uniquely bad and therefore the solution is to sack a very able senior officer with an 'exceptional' track record of transforming poorly performing services...that doesn't sound to me like it is likely to help safeguard vulnerable children.
Neither senior directors nor structures or procedures aren't enough to protect children if the professionals, whether social workers or paediatricians, aren't doing their job properly. (Though, as an aside about the current structures, it is pretty pathetic when a Labour MP who voted for the 2004 Children Act writes this kind of ill-informed drivel
which makes it abundantly clear that he doesn't have even the most basic knowledge of the system which he helped put in place or how little flexibility there is for individuals in the current system).
The effect of a lot of the coverage over the past week will be to make matters worse, rather than better, in the future. 12% of social work posts across the country are currently unfilled, and many more jobs are being done by people who have unmanageable caseloads or are having to deal with problems that their training and competencies haven't adequately prepared them for. This is even before days of sustained vilification in some of the best-selling newspapers, which is unlikely to bring in many more recruits. There are plenty of Sun readers, for example, who would make brilliant social workers, but who are even less likely now to contemplate it as a career.
One thing which I hope the review and/or the government will look at is about what is needed in order to persuade more and better suited people to consider social work and other kinds of child protection work as a career in the future - and that the newspapers who have written articles about how what happened to baby P must never happen again think about how they can play a part in encouraging more good people to become social workers, and educate their readers about ways that they can play their part in safeguarding children.
I'll finish this by quoting from an e-mail I got sent from a friend:'Do we sack the directors of hospitals when doctors are unable to save someone who refused to take their medicines? Of course not.
Last night there was a murder, the first for years, on Broadwater Farm. Do we demand the sacking of the Borough Commander or the local bobby? Of course not.
We recognize there are limits to the power of State agency to prevent outcomes: we recognize, in the power government has, the asymmetry between the good it can do and the evil it can prevent. Above all, ironically, I would expect Tories to recognize this.
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing": but we need to remember that this means that actually fighting evil is much, much harder than simply being good, and the standards we should apply to the success or otherwise of those who fight evil should reflect the complexity and challenge of the task they are seeking to perform. One baby has died, horribly and revoltingly at the hands of some extremely unpleasant and disturbed human beings. But numbers we cannot estimate have been saved.