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The Story of Baby P is a shocking account of how the media scapegoated social workers, revealing the depth of tabloid hatred for our social services, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

The story of baby P

Ray Jones, The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight (Policy Press 2014), xii, 339pp.

Peter Connelly – known to the world as Baby P from the pseudonym used before his full name was released to the media – was a 17-month old child killed by his mother, her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s brother at their home in Tottenham, north London in August 2007. Tracey Connelly, Steven Barker and Jason Owen went on trial in November 2008 to the accompaniment of intense media interest, particularly from The Sun, which ran a high-profile campaign calling for the social workers involved in the case, and the head of Haringey’s Children’s Services department, to be sacked.

This campaign was successful. Ed Balls, then Secretary of State for Children, announced the dismissal of Sharon Shoesmith, Director of Children’s Services in Haringey, on 1st December 2008, along with her deputy and the Head of Children’s Safeguarding. Maria Ward, the frontline social worker who worked with the Connelly family, was also sacked, as was her manager, Gillie Christou. Shoesmith, Ward and Christou had to deal not only with losing their jobs but also with intense harassment from journalists and the public and with the real danger of vigilante attacks from Sun readers who were being repeatedly told that these three women as good as murdered the blond-haired toddler. Shoesmith was even advised at the height of the campaign to avoid the London Underground, as it would be too easy for someone inflamed by the press coverage to push her under a tube train.

Ray Jones’ argument is that Haringey’s social services department, and the particular individuals involved with the Connellys’ case, were unfairly scapegoated. The cases of three of the sacked staff should indeed give anyone determined to believe that the social workers were at fault some pause for thought. All three appealed against their sackings, which it seemed clear were motivated more by the political necessity to be seen to be doing something about a child’s death rather than by any real concerns about their performance. If there had been genuine professional reasons why they should not have remained in their positions, the time to have removed them would have been in August 2007, when Peter Connelly was killed, not more than a year later when the case hit the headlines.

While Maria Ward’s and Gillie Christou’s dismissals were upheld by an employment tribunal, the General Social Care Council (the body which regulates social workers) concluded that there were no reasons to remove them from its register, so they could remain registered social workers. Sharon Shoesmith was found in 2013 to have been unfairly dismissed by Haringey Council, which was ordered to pay her compensation. Similarly, Ofsted’s regrading of the department from ‘good’ to inadequate’ in the wake of the media storm, and the rewriting of the report to take all the positive bits out, has a the familiar ring of a sexed-up dossier, making the facts fit the government position, rather than the other way around.

More broadly, Jones makes a convincing case that, not having the benefit of hindsight, the social workers involved did the best they could with the information they had. Peter first came to the attention of social services as a child potentially in need of protection in December 2006, when Tracey Connelly took him to hospital with a number of unexplained injuries. By July 2007, shortly before he died, the family had been rehoused to better accommodation, Tracey was receiving visits from a Family Welfare Association worker and was attending a parenting course, the children were being monitored by a health visitor and social worker, Peter was being seen regularly by the family’s GP and twice by paediatricians, and the whole case was being discussed regularly at child protection review conferences. This was not a family which had slipped under the radar.

One obvious reason that all this time and attention did not in the end protect Peter is that the social workers did not have full information about the composition of the Connelly household. As far as they were aware, Tracey Connelly was a single mother, who they assessed had some difficulties with parenting Peter and his three older sisters, but who loved her children and was committed to improving their care; she had ‘good insight into her difficulties’, the mental health worker for the family commented in December 2006 (p.14). The fact that by the time of Peter’s death, the household included Steven Barker, his brother Jason Owen, Owen’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend and his three young children, was not known to social services and if it had been, may well have changed their assessment of the situation. The police, who were supposed to be investigating the injuries to Peter in December 2006, could have discovered this, but their investigation stalled after the officer assigned to it was transferred without passing the case on. With the information they had, Haringey’s legal services advised that any action to remove Peter from his mother’s care was unlikely to succeed.

It seems clear from Jones’ account that the failure of the police to investigate Peter’s injuries was the key institutional failure here, so it is remarkable that neither the police in general nor the individual officers concerned ever came in for the sort of hounding that The Sun and other media outlets visited on the social workers and the paediatrician at St Ann’s Hospital who saw Peter shortly before he died. (The paediatrician, Sabah Al-Zayat, was lambasted for not having picked up that Peter’s back was broken, but according to a Panorama programme about the case aired in 2014, it is entirely possible that she didn’t spot it because the injury hadn’t yet happened.

So, why the witchhunt against Haringey Children’s Services? Jones points out that The Sun in particular has had a vendetta against Haringey Council since the days when Bernie Grant was MP for Tottenham and Haringey was routinely derided as one of the ‘looney left’ Labour councils (p.73). The temptation of another excuse to lay into one of their favourite targets must have been overwhelming, but it’s easy to suspect that social workers would have been scapegoated even if the council involved had had impeccably right-wing credentials.

The key, of course, is what the different agencies involved with the Connelly family stand for in the view of the right-wing press. It would always have been unlikely that a paper like The Sun would have singled out the Metropolitan Police for hounding, given the close relationships revealed by the Leveson Inquiry between senior police officers and many News International executives. The Sun, after all, had been happy to distort the truth for the police’s benefit in the past, as in their reporting of Hillsborough and Orgreave, to take the most famous examples.

The media view of social services was very different. It is widely recognised that social workers are ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’, excoriated as ‘baby snatchers’ when they take children away from their families but lambasted if children are left in their families and abused. This view, fostered by the right-wing media, that social workers can never do anything right, is surely not unconnected to the way in which the existence of social services embodies the welfare state. Public employees whose job it is to ensure, as far as possible, that the most vulnerable in society are safe and well, would only exist in a public not a private welfare system. They are one of the most obvious ways in which the state is still involved in the private lives of its citizens, and at the cost not of the families visited but of the public purse. Put it like that, and it’s easy to see how social workers would be particularly unpopular with media and politicians whose aim, explicitly, is to shrink and privatise welfare.

Peter Connelly died before the beginning of the economic crisis and the austerity agenda, but it is clear that previous rounds of cuts had a deleterious effect on the ability of social services to protect all the children in need of help in Haringey. There are wealthy areas in Haringey (parts of posh Highgate and Crouch End are in the borough) but overall, in 2010 it was the fourth most deprived borough in London, with wards in Tottenham among the most deprived 5% in the country (click here for the pdf of the report). This alone would have made it a difficult place in which to work for social workers, but the situation was clearly made much worse by soaring workloads – Maria Ward’s (the Connelly family’s social worker) case load doubled between January and July 2007, to 50% above the recommended limit (p.207) – and issues like a mandatory computer system which didn’t work properly (p.161).

It is hardly likely that austerity has improved this situation, and indeed, it seems to have worsened. The second serious case review into the death of Daniel Pelka, a four-year-old killed by his mother and stepfather in March 2012, is full of references to lack of resources. These range from high caseloads and no administrative support in social services, meaning that notes of case review meetings weren’t written up and made available to other professionals dealing with the family, to the fact that Daniel’s declining weight (because his carers were starving him) was not recorded by his health visitor because she had no scales on which to weigh him: ‘this was because there were not enough scales for each health visitor to have one each’ (Jane Wonnacott, Daniel Pelka Deeper Analysis Report (2014), 4.6, p.8). Cuts to council budgets make it more, not less likely that more children will die like Peter Connelly.

What also makes such future tragedies all too horribly probable is simply increasing poverty. Many of the measures put in place by social workers to improve life for the Connelly family would not be available now; with four children under ten, Tracey Connelly would have been charged the bedroom tax for the four-bedroomed house to which the family was moved in an attempt to make better parenting easier. The situation for Daniel Pelka was probably not helped by the fact that his mother, as a Polish immigrant without a UK work history, was not entitled to key benefits and so the family were evicted several times because of debt.

Reading the serious case reviews of Peter Connelly’s death, the dirt and chaos of the Connelly household stands out in hindsight as a red flag. It is however a hard fact that many households, particularly in poor areas like Tottenham, are ‘dirty, grubby and unhygienic’ (p.23), so much so that it is impossible for social workers to treat all such families as of special concern. The President of the Association of Children’s Services Directors commented in 2011 that the risk of children experiencing abuse or neglect had increased with the economic crisis: ‘Social workers would say that the economy is placing more pressure on families who are least able to cope. They would say that the sheer number of parents abusing drugs and alcohol has increased.’ The effect of the Baby P case has been to increase the numbers of children being taken into care, but given the poor outcomes for many looked-after children and without concomitant increases to council budgets, it is difficult to see this as a positive outcome.

We don’t have to speculate about what effect austerity and poverty will have on a generation of children, because we already have the evidence in the lives of their parents, the products of Thatcher’s neo-liberal public-sector and benefit cuts. The Tory government of the 1980s ‘creat[ed] poverty on a scale that appeared to have been buried in the past, and of a kind that had never been seen before’ (Nick Davies, Dark Heart, The Shocking Truth About Hidden Britain, Vintage 1998, p.293) The results were seen in the lives of people like Tracey Connelly, who had ‘a lifetime’s experience of dealing with social workers’ and who was placed on the Child Protection Register in 1991, when she was ten, because of ‘concerns about her appearance and hygiene, and that the parenting she received was inconsistent and abusive’ (Jones, pp.6-7). Steven Barker and Jason Owen were also said to have had abusive childhoods.

The Tories, like the right-wing media, would like us to believe that poverty has no such effects. There are the deserving poor, who work hard and never become ill, and ‘little angels’ as Peter Connelly was described, and then there are the undeserving, the feral underclass like Tracey Connelly or Daniel Pelka’s mother. In fact, how people are treated in society, and the conditions in which they have to live, affects (unsurprisingly) how they behave, and how their children learn to behave. As Martin Narey, Chief Executive of Barnado’s, pointed out, the very media outlets which sentimentalised Peter Connelly as a toddler in order to attack the welfare system would have taken a very different tack had he lived:

‘The probability is that, had Baby P survived, given his own deprivation, he might have been unruly by the time he had reached the age of 13 or 14. At which point, he would have become feral, a parasite, a yob, helping to infest our streets … Until we recognise that offending might in part be linked to levels of poverty in the UK – levels which should shame a country with our affluence – we have to be resigned to that offending continuing’ (p.296).

While we live with poverty and austerity, we will also be living with children suffering and dying from the sort of abuse experienced by Peter Connelly. The solutions lie not in bullying social workers out of an already difficult profession, nor in cutting funding for welfare, but in creating a more equal society. Jones’ brave correction of the tabloid version of the Baby P story is one more piece of evidence that austerity kills.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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