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Hatred towards Sharon Shoesmith over Baby P hides an ugly agenda

The scapegoating makes people feel good about themselves but hinders a proper moral investigation of the baby’s death

By on Monday, 7 January 2013

Sharon Shoesmith, former head of children's services at Haringey (Photo: PA)

Sharon Shoesmith, former head of children's services at Haringey (Photo: PA)

Moral thinking requires a bit of, well, thinking, if it is to be of any value. To get very angry about something, or to find something repellent – that is not a moral position. A moral position has to rest on some form of rationality.

When something bad happens, someone is usually, but not always, to blame. When, for example, someone is killed by accident, there may in fact be no one to blame. This does in fact happen. The people killed by the tsunami died as a result of what is sometimes called an “act of God”; in other words, an event that was not caused by any human agency.

But many deaths do have human agents that cause them, and depending on the deliberate nature of these human actions, then someone is to blame.

Baby P was deliberately killed. There can be no doubt about that. The nature of his injuries makes it clear that he was subjected to repeated assaults, which must have been, could only have been, carried out with malice aforethought. The sheer scale of the injuries makes it clear that this was not an accident but deliberate, and took place over an extended period. And so the courts found, sending his mother, her lover and his brother down for causing the death of a child, not manslaughter, and, oddly, not murder.

Meanwhile, Sharon Shoesmith continues to be the target of unrelenting anger, as this article in the Mail Online shows. She, readers will remember, was the social worker responsible for child protection in Haringey. That she is now unemployed and with no prospects of finding work is sad, but the Mail describes her as “self-pitying”. It seems that Miss Shoesmith will never be punished enough.

It is worth bearing in mind that the Confiteor asks forgiveness “for what I have done, and what I have failed to do”, for sins of commission and omission. The actions of those who killed Baby Peter fall into the first category; those of Miss Shoesmith, in that she failed to prevent the child’s death, into the second.

Could the child have been saved? Probably, but it is easy to judge by results. Did Miss Shoesmith and her department do their jobs properly? An Ofsted report judged their services to be “inadequate”. But it remains the case that theirs was a very hard task, Haringey a tough place, and that public opinion (so unforgiving now) is very much against children being taken into care. Moreover, public opinion dislikes social workers and is only happy to blame them when things go wrong. As a result, the focus of blame shifts away from the real perpetrators, the mother, her lover, and his brother.

The shift of focus from the perpetrators to the person or institution who is perceived as blameworthy because they failed to stop it is not peculiar to the Baby P case. Nor is the demonisation of a professional group something only social workers have to put up with. (Let the reader think of parallel cases.) But this is a dangerous trend.

First of all, it is unjust. People like Sharon Shoesmith do not deserve to be made into social pariahs. Many, in fact the vast majority of social workers do a wonderful job, in very difficult circumstances too.

Secondly, it hides an ugly agenda. A whole load of people who have never lifted a finger for child welfare can now feel good about themselves, thinking that in finding someone to blame they are absolved of moral responsibility.

Thirdly, it disguises an irrational hatred as a moral position, which it is not, and in the process perverts moral thinking.

Fourthly, it makes proper moral investigation difficult, if not impossible. Questions remain about the Baby P case. Where was his father? Why was his mother living with a man not her husband? Is that good for children? Why was the brother living with a 15-year-old girl? It seems to me that this level of amorality, which is widely accepted by many, must have had a bearing on the child’s death. How can you expect social services to protect children from murder when the very people who should be protecting them most turn to murder themselves? How is it that we expect social services to deliver when family breakdown is so rife, and why is no one ever willing to face up to the reality of family breakdown and the high price so many, especially children, pay for it?

There is a word for this moral incoherence, and that is hypocrisy. The Mail is a hypocritical newspaper. It panders to immorality, as a brief tour of its website shows, then blames Sharon Shoesmith for the results of that immorality when it does not like some of those results. But let us be fair. The anti-Catholic Times is worse, and so is the anti-Catholic Independent, both of whom have employed op-ed writers who demonise our Holy Father the Pope. But that is material for another article.

  • Thomas Bridge

    To expand on my point on twitter yesterday – Sharon Shoesmith is failing to take responsibility for what she did have control over.

    Part of the giveaway here is in the seventh paragraph of the story – where she claims only social workers were disciplined but in fact two doctors were as well (this sort of inaccurate statement by the way is going to have just as much effect on social workers morale as much as any inaccurate campaign by the Mail).

    But the reason for the anger towards her was that Baby P was the second high profile case her department “mishandled” – after Victoria Climbie – and her initial public statements that implied she thought there were no lessons to learn and rejecting the call for a (new) inquiry.

    During an era when Nanny State presumes to lecture us on how much alcohol is safe or whether or not we should ban Frosties it’s hardly unsurprising that statements from public servants that appear arrogant and unfeeling end up being career suicide.

  • Parasum

    “The scapegoating makes people feel good about themselves..”

    ## Her carelessness led to a hideous death for a 19-month old child. She was in charge, drawing a very decent salary BTW – so she cannot now shirk responsibility for failures of judgement that ultimately lay with her. Cowardice is despicable – and it is even worse when it is combined with negligence on this scale. Evasion, cowardice, negligence, refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions – these are indefensible. If she can take the money, then she take the blame that belongs to her as well.

    There is nothing in any of this wretched (and fatal) affair to make anyone “feel good about themselves” at all; it is unbelievable that a priest cannot see this.

  • Norma Kennedy

    Sharon Shoesmith got what she deserved – the sack.   If she had a  modicum of decency she would have resigned along with the other members of Haringey Council involved in child protection.   It is utterly disgraceful that she has pressed for unfair dismissal in such circumstances and it will be scandalous if she gets compensation for the blind incompetence she displayed when in office.   

    Of course, others were also involved but, as in such cases, the buck stops at the top.   She obviously was unable to cope and should not have been holding such a position of responsibility.   The fact that she and her department had prior knowledge of the abuse these children were suffering yet were so inept in getting them away from their abusers is just pathetic.

    It would be relevant if ministers of religion in these deprived areas worked in close association with the child protection departments of such councils in order to offer support and information on such cases so that horrific outcomes like these are consigned to the past. 

  • mrpants2

    I could not agree more in your analysis of our tawdry media with its barely concealed hatred of Catholicism. Whatever the “faults” of Sharon Shoesmith we are a nation addicted to loathsome hypocritical self righteousness fuelled by a very biased media.
    I suppose in reality Ms Shoesmith is paying for the shocking abuse that took place at Haringey under Hodge when shamefully the concern then was protecting the reputation of the council.

  • paulthorgan

    I think that the author is missing a very significant point here.  The public outrage was due to the fact that an avoidable death of a child took place in exactly the same borough as that of Victoria Climbie.  The death of Victoria exposed serious failings in child care that implied that these failings were uniform across the UK.  There was a public enquiry which had a series of recommendations, one of which the creation of the post that Sharon Shoesmith occupied.  The reforms cost millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.  And in Haringey they had no effect.

    If Baby P had died in any other local authority then public anger would not be so strong.  However Haringey was the last local authority that this should happen in, given the failures highlighted.  The post Sharon Shoesmith occupied was created to prevent deaths like this.  Quite simply Baby P died because Sharon Shoesmith failed at her job as her job was created to keep Baby P alive.

    Shoesmith compounded this by refusing to admit her culpability and also trying to garner favour from Ofsted by texting them juat as an emergency inspection show the serious failing of the organisation she run.  She did not ask forgiveness – she held on to her job and had to be prised out of it by public anger only after the court case ended.  She should have left when Baby P died.

    She is a rare example of a public official who was required to shoulder full responsibility for her failings.  Normally people like her are suspended on full pay and then leave with a 6-figure golden parachute.

    If she did not want to be treated this way then she should have run her department better.

    I note with interest that no-one else commenting on this article seems to agree with it.  Perhaps the author should consider their views.

  • Terry walsh

    first and foremost i would blame the government for setting targets to be made that were impossible and in doing this the ‘treasures’ of the monies being given to those with the highest number of children taken into care.WHY DOES THE GOVERNMENT HAVE NO NAME FOR THESE FUNDS AND WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?  this is a business that is about money.

  • Liz

    I am unfortunate enough to know Sharon Shoessmith and whilst I had no strong feeling about her involvement in the Baby P affair I found her “personality” to be far from pleasant or agreeable. 

    Whilst I was in contact with her she created a gang of followers within the environment, she then claimed the press were following her and that she was frightened someone would ‘sell’ a story about her. Lo and behold a few weeks later a story appeared. Within this gang there was a very unstable priest who seemed to need to hide the fact he was a priest and became very aggressive when anyone questioned him about it and he was one of her main supporters!

    I felt manipulated by her and extremely uncomfortable in her presence. She has had media training and used this to her advantage to humiliate and embarrass people in our group all the while her little gang would support and defend her.

    A year ago she said she was studying for a PhD, now she says she cannot get work. I suppose it all supports her £1M compensation claim for being “unemployable”. 

    However I suspect working as a cleaner or at McDonalds no one would care who she was and they are jobs her personality and skills would suit.

    Sharon if you really want people to forget about your past you need to stop bringing it up. The £1M will not be worth what you are putting yourself through by reliving the story.

  • Mark

    Yes, social work is difficult. Yes, there will be times when a child falls through the cracks and is killed. But this is NOT the case here. Baby P didn’t fall through the cracks, he was under the “watchful ” eye of the social workers, with sixty visits to catch what was going on. If a father or boyfriend suddenly snaps and kills a child, if a mother gets drunk and kills her child, these are the unavoidable one, the surprises, the ones that escalated too fast to catch (possibly). But the mistake was made sixty times. Everyone makes errors. My friend, who is a handyman, put it simply. He may make a mistake and cut a piece of wood too short. It’s a mistake. But, as he pointed out, he’s never made that same mistake SIXTY TIMES IN A ROW. Shoesmith was the head of the department, she was getting a truck load of money to stop this sort of thing happening, and she failed. The paramedics who came on the day Peter died noticed the horrendous state of the home. If they can do that in the middle of an emergency, then why could Maria Ward NOT do it in her sixty visits over several months? Even Tracey Connelly herself said the social worker must be an idiot not to notice. What is more annoying is that they did persecuted a woman for child abuse when none was happening, but that woman committed a greater sin. She was a social worker who pointed out the failings of Haringey council some months before Peter died, and predicted a death. It seems that murdering a child is bad, but being a whistleblower at Haringey council is much worse.