Shoesmith, Balls and Appeals

Ed Balls, Member of Parliament of the United K...

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I was trying to steer away from discussion of the Shoesmith’s appeal against her dismissal by Haringey Council (via Ed Balls, the responsible Cabinet minister at the time) and her victory in the Court of Appeal – but having followed the case from the outset, I can’t quite resist coming back to it.

There are a few issues that have caught my attention in the press and blogs that I  have read over the past few days.

Firstly there is a confusion between the outcome (namely Shoesmith losing her job) and the process (being sacked via the Minister in a press conference on the basis – according to him, at least – of an OFSTED report, the findings of which she was not able to respond to).

I am biased although I have no time for Shoesmith. Like almost every Director of Services (Adults and Children) she is happy to take the pay without having an idea of how the services are, or aren’t being run ‘under her watch’. She doesn’t come across as a particularly sympathetic character and I think her lack of knowledge of social work  – as she comes from an education background – has come back to bite hard.

But, and this is the big but – that doesn’t mean she is suddenly an exception to employment law – and of course, that’s what the Court of Appeal found.

Secondly, Balls hung Shoesmith, and by extension the social work profession and professionals out to dry. It’s all very well saying responsibility should lie at the top  but if that is the case, why not the Children’s Minister himself? You see, the problem with the uproar following the tragic death of Peter Connolly, which led to the highly charged press conferences and shamefully manipulative exchanges in the Houses of Commons is that it was a manufactured outrage. Yes, of course it is beyond awful when a child dies following abuse and it is a failing when the systems that should protect that child break down but Peter Conn0lly isn’t the only child, unfortunately, to die under those circumstances and in the face of Ed Balls’ posturing and much as we would like it to be different, nor will he be the last one.

There was the awful tales of Alex Sutherland, Khyra Ishtaq, Baby B – and many others – so why was Peter Connolly thrust into the public consciousness such that the memories of a boy whose life was cut short are remembered by the details of his death and the photos released to the newspapers?

Well, that would probably be an interesting research project all in itself about media and the human psyche – but Balls admits that he succumbed to pressure regarding Shoesmith and the pressure was put on by the tabloid press. He even added insult to injury by throwing Deirdre Sanders, the agony aunt of the Sun newspaper onto the Social Work Taskforce which was to look at ways of improving social work practice. If anything demonstrates how he threw the profession to the baying wolves, it is that.

As for Shoesmith, however she may or may not have done her job, hers was not the hand that beat Connolly. She deserved better from her employers regarding advice although who knows if they gave her that media management advice and whether she chose not to take it or whether she was just thrown to the wolves by her employers.

The OFSTED report by which Balls condemned Shoesmith is faulty in the extreme and was altered. I wonder who might have put pressure on OFSTED to change this.

There is a lot of poor practice and poor knowledge of processes knocking around in this case. It wasn’t all to be laid at the feet of Shoesmith. It looks like the ex-minister had more to gain through his pandering to the press than anyone else and the shame is that it is on the back of a tragedy.

Shoesmith isn’t a social worker and never has been (although the Evening Standard headline seems to state it) but it’s easy for the press to make the leap because they have no idea about the actual facts nor do they check them. They want a hate figure. I am uncomfortable defending Shoesmith to a point because I am not sure exactly where the blame lies but the blame for processes should lie between the police service, the health service and children’s services.  Another Serious Case Review and more about the failings in communication between agencies. The profession really needs far more radical proposals than those set out in the Munro Report but it’s a start.

What Shoesmith was entitled to was the same process of natural justice that everyone else is- I don’t say she shouldn’t have been dismissed, that’s another argument entirely and to be honest, I think she should have been – but Balls was looking to the headlines rather than the law book when he acted to dismiss her.

For that, he should apologise rather than taking refuge in the baying crowds of populism – oh, but he’s a politician. However much I may hate the current government, and however much Osborne makes my skin crawl, I will never forget the shameless pandering to the tabloid press that Balls engaged in on the back of the death of a child.

Shoesmith and the aftermath

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 07:  Sharon Shoesmit...

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Sharon Shoesmith’s appeal against her dismissal as ‘unlawful’ was rejected at the High Court yesterday but it wasn’t as straightforward as some headlines might suggest.

I haven’t a great deal of sympathy for Shoesmith necessarily. I think that there has to be an element of ‘the buck stops here’ where bad practice is concerned, particularly as it seems that the poor practice was related to atrocious staffing levels and poor supervision but I think that Ed Balls’ media play party with her and others in Haringey as the sacrifical lambs was incredibly uncomfortable.

It felt very much like a response to a media baying for blood rather than a considered investigation about what had gone wrong and how better outcomes could be achieved.

The judge though rejected this interpretation and has indicated that an employment tribunal may be a better place for Shoesmith to address her grievances directly with Haringey.

The Guardian has an interesting follow up about the effect of the case on child protection in the UK and asks the pertinent question of ‘Who would be a DCS (Director of Childrens’ Services) in the UK?’. Hopefully, the answer will be found through those who have an interest in the quality of work produced rather than the quantity necessarily but that’s a pipe-dream in a system built on targets that don’t always allow a professional judgement to be made as regards priorities.

The shortage of Child Protection Social Workers increases meanwhile as does the  number of children taken into the care of local authorities. It is no coincidence.

While for Shoesmith in particular, whatever should or shouldn’t have been done will, I suppose, go to tribunal – the sadness of this instance is that there is a group-think about social workers which has been damaged by both media responses and by a government (Ed Balls) snuggling up to the media portrayals of everything being the fault of social workers and social services. There is an inability to detach poor practice by individuals from the profession as a whole.

Meanwhile, the Mail has another ‘social workers want to snatch my child’ story. It is, of course, hard to see this story as anything connected to ‘journalism’ as clearly only one side can be told. But anyone who has a sniff of knowledge of social work departments will know that ‘cuddling your child for too long’ is absolutely not going to be anything close to a reason for removal, intervention or even .

The Mail seems to attract these stories and they tell their readers exactly what they want to read – that those nasty nasty child snatchers might take your sweet child if you just cuddle her too much..

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Shoesmith speaks

I’ve not been a great defender of Shoesmith, the former Director of Children’s Services at Haringey,  but it doesn’t take much heart to have some sympathy for her ‘trial by media’ in the wake of the Baby P affair.

She has given an interview to The Guardian with the audio version here

There is also an editorial piece which makes interesting reading.

I have more sympathy for her than I did before I read and listened to the interview so for as much as that, it has served it’s purpose.

There is no doubt that mistakes were made with tragic consequences but the media storm and focus that made her consider suicide – well, I hope there are a few journalists who think about the work done in children’s services and the effects that their rabble-rousing has on individuals – when ultimately, there is a wish to work effectively and well within systems that are not always of the employees’ making.

As for Ed Balls, he has shown a wish to pander to the tabloid crowd.

Child Protection has become a political football to be bounced around as the public mood is ripe for targets.

Surely more needs to be done in a wider societal scale to prevent the circumstances that lead to abuse – and I’m not sure that an agony aunt at The Sun will have the answers.

Reviewing Social Work

This morning, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children has announced review of Social Work. Seeing his job description, I wonder how much effect this will have on the generic nature of Social Work training.

Some of the headline changes ‘demanded’ are that senior managers in ‘Social Services Children’s’ Departments’ (I put that in inverted commas because a lot of the Children’s’ Departments are now Social Services and Education Departments) have to have experience in a Social Work setting. This was one of the criticisms of Sharon Shoesmith – she managed a department that covered Education and Social Services for Children. She had an allegedly glittering career in Education but no experience of Social Work or Social Services on any more than a perfunctory level.

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My understanding was that the purpose of merging the Childrens and Education services’ directorates was to create a more cohesive and communicative department after the first Laming Report. People still compartmentalise and how much is it worth fighting this? Just give the jobs to people who are able to do them and who know what they are doing. These are no positions for ‘career’ administrators with no idea of what actually happens on a day to day basis.

The need to change training processes is more interesting to me. Balls says that more practical experience is needed in Social Work training courses. Granted, I trained before the latest change in the system but what is without doubt is that the practice teaching and the placement system is already falling apart. There are not enough placements for the amount of students currently training. I know it’s certainly the case at the universities I have contact with and I understand it’s a standard across the country. Of course more practical experience is fundamental to the provision of well-trained and therefore, effective, confident and  independent-minded social workers – but just saying it should exist won’t help the people who are already desperately searching for placement.

There has to be room to fail students who don’t make the grade too. A colleague of mine had a student who was frankly not competent. She was pressured to keep giving him chances over and over again until he eventually and against her recommendations, passed his placement. It is not an ‘easy’ subject and there is absolutely no room for students who aren’t up to it.

What do you need to learn to be a social worker?

A clear view of the background of social services provisions and social work as a profession and a good grounding in social policy and the history of social policy.

Knowledge of the place of culture and identity in a persons’ life and the role that it has in the society in which we live.

Critical analysis of policies that are presented to you. There is a role for academic writing and investigations and research work. Hands on experience is vital but never at the expense of thorough academic learning and intellectual strain. This cannot afford to be a ‘soft’ subject. We need competent, well-trained and well-educated staff.

The ability to write clearly and coherently – with or without spell check (ok, that’s a bugbear of mine, I am really frustrated by the quality of some of the reports that are placed in front of me by colleagues – it is almost embarrassing).

Independence, bloody-mindedness but also empathy. You can’t take what you are told at face-value. Not service users, not carers and perhaps most importantly not managers, but you can be bloody-minded without being confrontational. That isn’t the same as not trusting people or believing – but rather about  accepting that perceptions of reality aren’t always the same as an objective reality. You can’t afford to be complacent  – it is not fair to people who expect a service.  That’s the skill. Nudging at details, having conversations with people that they don’t want to have but still being able to maintain some kind of therapeutic relationship.

When I carry out Mental Health Act Assessments, the first thing I have to say to someone is the purpose of the assessment and that it may lead to a compulsory detention in hospital – I then have to try and do a 180 degree turn to create an environment for a constructive conversation – that’s a bit of a dramatic example but it happens.

Humility – You can be wrong. Please please please accept you can be wrong. The most frightening social work practitioners are the ones who can’t go to colleagues or managers and say ‘I’m not sure about this’ or ‘I have done something wrong here’ or sometimes (and more frequently in my case!) ‘I don’t know what to do’. And what do we need? Managers who WELCOME social workers asking and telling. I know someone who is terrified to tell her manager about things she is not sure of because she doesn’t want to seem incompetent. THAT is the most dangerous type of social worker. If I ever do supervise a student or even manage another member of staff, I would be happiest if I set them on their way without being afraid to discuss concerns, misjudgments, thought processes and errors for fear of chastisement.

People skills can’t be taught always but they can be practiced. The fear as well is that being pushed around from pillar to post by political inquiries and ‘layman’s views’ on what can be changed isn’t always the best way to instil a confidence in a beleaguered workforce.

Just some initial thoughts – I may add some more over the week when I’ve had a chance to read a little more about the proposals but I was watching the Breakfast News and felt the need to respond. It is a subject that matters to me.

If anyone has any other ideas about what should be in this report, feel free to add!

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