Have been somewhat unsure as to whether or not I should write about Sharon Shoesmith and the baby P case as it is, quite justifiably, a somewhat sensitive issue. An article in the Guardian today suggesting that the social sevices sector is now gripped by a “fear of failure” does, however, seem worth some comment.
As tragic as the baby P case was, I found the treatment of the social services people and, in particular, Sharon Shoesmith extremely distasteful. Sharon Shoesmith may well have been a very poor manager and may well be responsible for some of the failings in her department, and could well deserve to have been fired. What she did not deserve, in my opinion, is to have effectively become the face of the baby P case. Whatever she may or may not have done wrong, she was not directly responsible for the death of a child. It is possible that it could have been prevented had different decisions been made, but that – to me – is the crux of the matter. Decisions have to be made based on people’s judgements. Sometimes those decisions will turn out to have been wrong. If the wrong decisions were made because someone was incompetent or not doing their job properly, then they deserve to be appropriately disciplined or be fired. However, to essentially make someone effectively responsible for something as heinous as the death of a child when they were not directly involved and were trying to do their job, seems utterly disproportionate.
What makes this case even subtler is that the mother was being explicitly devious when dealing with people from social services. Since I imagine that most people who work for social services do so because they believe that they can help those who have been disadvantaged in some way and probably have a fairly optimistic view of the world around them, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that they could have been taken in by someone else’s deception. To then, effectively, blame social services when a mother and her boyfriend murder a child seem entirely unfair. If those working in social services are now terrified of making what will be perceived – by the general public – as a mistake (as the Guardian article suggests) then more damage will be done. We should recognise that what social services are doing is not an exact science. They are trying to use their judgement to decide what is best for children and families. Unfortunately, when they get it “wrong” the consequences could be tragic. For them to pay a higher price because the consequences of their “mistakes” could be tragic doesn’t seem entirely reasonable.
As with any major organisation, social services should (and I imagine does) try to learn from its “mistakes”. However, for the general public to effectively brand those responsible as “killers” is simplistic and damaging, and fails to recognise the complexity of what social services does. For Ed Balls (the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families at the time) to get involved and fire Sharon Shoesmith was completely inappropriate in my view, and I’m extremely pleased that he doesn’t appear to have a chance of becoming the next Labour leader. I suspect that at some point in the not too distant future (once the memory of the event has faded somewhat), Sharon Shoesmith will be cleared of any wrongdoing and will get some kind of compensation from the government. We, the taxpayer, will end up paying a lot money to someone because there was a knee-jerk reaction from both the general public and the government. Although we should try to minimise how often such tragic events occur, we surely can’t expect to prevent them altogether and if those involved are terrified of what will happen the next time such an event occurs, it will be extremely difficult for them to use their judgement when making difficult decisions about how to treat children and families who are at risk.