06 July 2019

TORTOISE CASE FILE • STATE V FAMILY

The long shadow of Baby P

Twelve years ago, a young boy died. The repercussions are still being felt by families and social workers

By Polly Curtis

On 3 August 2007, a 17-month-old lifeless body was taken by ambulance to hospital and declared dead. The little boy, called Peter, was covered in bruises, had a missing tooth and a torn frenum – the piece of skin that connects the upper lip between the two front teeth. The post-mortem three days later revealed the tooth lodged in his colon, eight fractured ribs and a broken back.

An investigation later documented over 50 injuries he had suffered in the eight months leading up to his death: a ripped ear, a missing fingernail, torn skin, chronic skin infections and lice infestations. It also identified the 60+ times he had been seen by doctors, health visitors, the police and social workers. Chocolate was smeared on his face to hide the bruises. “[His] horrifying death could and should have been prevented,” the report concluded.

In November 2008, the boy’s mother, her boyfriend and his brother were convicted for his death. But that did not appease a mounting sense of outrage. It was revealed the day before his death that his mother had been told she was no longer being investigated for child abuse. (Elated, she said she was off to enjoy the summer holidays with her son and other children. Perhaps they’d do some baking, she was reported to have remarked.) The tabloid press launched a campaign against the social workers responsible as politicians broke with convention that such cases aren’t politicised and thrashed it out at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

In the weeks and months after that, there was a huge spike in children being taken into care across the country. The year after the court verdict there was a 36 per cent increase in applications to the courts to remove children from their homes. It became known as the “Baby P effect”.

Sharon Shoesmith and Ed Balls have both had over ten years to reflect on the case of Peter Connelly. Shoesmith was director for children services in Haringey, where he died. Balls was the secretary of state for children at the time. The two have never met. But the lives of the former Labour politician – known for his pugnacious political nature, his appetite for policy detail and, more recently, for appearing on Strictly Come Dancing – and the former teacher, whom he sacked after Ofsted said her department had failed in the Baby P case, are now forever linked. They have both been interviewed for this article.

Balls insists that his mission throughout that crisis, the guiding principle behind his every decision, was to protect the care system.

“We knew we had a crisis,” he says now. “We knew it would be a crisis for child protection and the way the system operated. The question in my mind was whether this was a Haringey issue, or a system-wide crisis. We didn’t know which it was going to be.”

This corner of north-east London was already synonymous with the failure of the state to protect children. Another child, Victoria Climbie, had died there eight years previously, leading to a review of the entire child protection system. Baby P risked becoming a test of the Labour government’s delivery of their promise that “Every Child Matters”.

Sharon Shoesmith arrives at London's High Court in October 2009

Balls’ fear at the time was that a second public scandal would be a symptom of a wider failure, bringing the entire system into the frame. Meanwhile, the opposition had their claws out for Labour.

“What actually happened was this,” says Balls. “David Cameron went for it in a much more political way than we ever thought he would,” he says. “It fed into this David Cameron/The Sun ‘broken society’ narrative.”

To cap it all, there was one “catastrophic fact”. The rules at the time meant that the serious case review into the handling of Baby P and his family was chaired by Sharon Shoesmith, when it was Shoesmith herself who was ultimately responsible for that handling. There was an obvious conflict of interest. “We didn’t know there was a flaw in guidance that allowed that to happen,” Balls says.

“The system looked in doubt because of all of this – David Cameron, the terrible details of his death and then the problem with the serious case review. The Sun had this rolling campaign. The crisis was building and building.

“Suddenly every police force, every GP, every school thinks: ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. The swamping of social services with referrals begins that day.”

Ed Balls, pictured in 2008, when he was secretary of state for children, schools and families

Balls says that he resisted the pressure building around him for weeks and only removed Shoesmith from her role when an emergency Ofsted  inspection was published damning the council (despite having given it a bill of clean health before the story broke). When he finally fired her, he did it on live TV.

Shoesmith’s version of the events of those pressurised weeks is not that dissimilar to Balls’, save for a few key details.

We meet in a central London cafe. She says she still suffers from her experience of being in the eye of that political and media storm. Her post-traumatic obsession over what happened, and why, resulted in a PhD and then a book documenting her side of the story. She won a court case for unfair dismissal, but says she still has nightmares about finding dead babies in her handbag or leaving the house having applied lipstick only to realise that the lipstick was, in fact, human excrement.

Shoesmith says being sacked on live TV sent fear through the system. She accuses Balls of caving into tabloid pressure and vilifying the entire social care profession. Rather than protecting them, she says, Balls joined the mob.

Sharon Shoesmith outside the courts in 2011

She challenges his claim, also made in his memoir, that he was motivated to protect the social work system. “It wasn’t about ‘is this a Haringey problem or a national problem?’” she says. “It was, is this a Haringey problem or a political problem for Ed Balls?”

Shoesmith is also keen to make a more fundamental point: that social workers can do all the right things, with every best intention and to the best of their ability, and sometimes bad people still harm their children. “Doctors are not blamed when they can’t cure cancer,” she says.

As Balls and Shoesmith were, from their respective positions, battling the political and media storm, things were changing on the ground across the country. In the weeks, months and years after the Baby P verdict, referrals to social services and the numbers of children going into care shot up. In the ten years before Connelly’s death the number of children in care plateaued and began to fall. In the year starting April 2009 there was a dramatic increase.

Between the year ending April 2009 and April 2010 there was a 36 per cent increase in the numbers of care cases starting in courts in England and Wales.

Among those children was the first son of Clarissa, a mother from north London. A victim of domestic violence and struggling with poor mental health, Clarissa accepts she wasn’t a fit mother when social services first got involved in her case. But she believes that with proper and timely support she could have kept her children and thrived.

In the spring of 2009 she recalls one particular conversation with a London social worker in which she was trying to defend her suitability as a parent to her son. “Why should I believe you?” the social worker asked her. “Baby P’s mum lied.”

“That just stuck in my head,” she says now. “It didn’t feel right, me being judged by one other case and however bad things were, they were nothing like what happened there.”

The effect wasn’t just felt in London. Karen was working as a social worker in the north-east of England, where she still practises so we cannot use her real name. “I can remember the doom descending. The aftermath for me was scrutiny, caution, fear,” she says. “The minute you walked into the office after [the Baby P story broke], there was that real weightiness.

Victoria Climbié, who was murdered by her aunt and her aunt's boyfriend

“There’s also a kind of the blame game. Management shifted from a supportive position to a punitive ‘why haven’t you done that?’ position. I remember families saying they felt they were being harshly treated as a result of Baby P. They felt like they were being punished. It was there, in the air.”

A second social worker, back in London but in a high-performing, widely respected authority, returned from maternity leave in 2009. She didn’t notice changes in the way they were working – “just that everyone felt sorry for Haringey”.

But when she met with other councils it was clear how deeply some had been affected. “I went to one training course with people from across London where we examined the data since Baby P. Ours was stable. Others had really shot up,” she recalls. “It made a huge difference. There was a lot of fear. Defensive practice. The idea was that ‘we can’t afford not to escalate in case we’ve missed something’. There was a real gallows humour. It was on everyone’s mind.”

Josh MacAlister is chief executive of Frontline, which brings high-achieving people into the frontline of social work. He describes how “defensive practice” and risk aversion sets in. “A mistake is made. Through good intentions, managers say, to stop this happening, let’s put in place these rules. There is a belief that writing down how people should respond will make us safe in the future. The more that happens and the bigger the rule book gets, the more we’re telling professionals ‘you’re not adults, you can’t be trusted’. The more we tell professionals how to behave, the less responsibility they take.

“There’s a doom loop in this. Where people don’t have agency, the job becomes less attractive. It deters good people from coming into the profession. That leaves bigger gaps in talent, so you need more rules.”

In the ten years since Peter Connelly died, the structure of the social work force has changed markedly. A survey by the British Association of Social Work suggests that social workers now only spend 20 per cent of their working lives actually with families. Meanwhile, new data in the past couple of years shows that only half of social workers actually see families at all, with the rest in managerial and administrative roles.

In 2011, Eileen Munroe, now emeritus professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, delivered a report urging the government to strip away some of the bureaucracy that was calcifying social work.

Munroe describes those months after the “Baby P” story broke. “It encouraged process as a defence. People thought: ‘I did the right thing, it’s just the child died’,” she says. “The move away from judgement and creative work was part of that fear. You presented up-to-date data and forms that were ticked off without looking at things that are valuable. We moved into a pseudo-world of bureaucracy as a way of understanding uncertainty and anxiety.”

But did that defensive practice actually do any good? Were lives saved as the system moved towards taking children into care more readily? It’s a difficult question to answer because you can’t compare it with what might have been.

In 2007, the year Connelly died, 55 other children died across the country. But Connelly’s death didn’t become public until the end of 2008 with the trial verdict, after which the numbers of children being taken into care jumped markedly. The current method of recording the numbers of child deaths by deliberate injury, abuse or neglect began in 2010, when there were 30 recorded. But in the years until 2017, the last year for which there are records, there is no clear correlation between the numbers of children going into care and the numbers of children dying. Even if a pattern were clear, that would not prove a cause.

Lucy Butler, director of children, education and family at Oxfordshire County Council, who is on the Tortoise Members’ panel advising this project, says it’s worth reflecting on those figures in an international context. “We have one of the safest child protection systems in the world,” she says. “But that’s not very newsworthy.”

Shoesmith has reflected on the whole situation in the years since. She came from an education background and now speaks to social workers about what she has learnt. “The challenge for social workers is to educate the public on what we can and can’t achieve for them. We need to stand up for social work,” she says.

Just as Shoesmith has tried to find ways to overcome the trauma of the whole experience, so has the system.

Munroe says that now social work practice is starting to improve in some areas. “There are examples of really good work happening, but now it’s about getting enough of it to have the momentum for it to become the norm. We’re still very fragile. Another Peter Connelly would knock the whole system back.”

Photography by Getty Images and Shutterstock

Further reading

Learning from Baby P: The Politics of Blame, Fear and Denial, by Sharon Shoesmith, gives her account.

Speaking Out, by Ed Balls, includes a chapter documenting his account of the Baby P story.