The Shoesmith Interview: 'I haven't been able to move on at all'

Two years after her sacking, Sharon Shoesmith tells Ravi Chandiramani about the immense pressures in children's services and the fight to clear her name over Peter Connelly's murder.

Sharon Shoesmith is about to embark on a PhD at the University of London, she reveals, which will look at "how society copes with unpalatable truths". She will also this month complete a postgraduate certificate in psychotherapy.

It sounds like a kind of catharsis for a woman who became the most hated person in Britain when she was sacked two years ago as Haringey's director of children's services. The sacking, announced on live television by the then Children's Secretary Ed Balls, followed an intense period of media coverage over the murder of 17-month-old Peter Connelly.

"I can't get a job. I'm unemployed and unemployable," she says. "But you can't stop me using my brain."

For someone vilified so utterly by a bloodthirsty media, she is understandably nervous about giving an interview, her first since speaking out in February 2009 about the case. She is anxious to look suitably temperate for CYP Now's photoshoot and seems somewhat haunted still by her hounding and demonisation by the paparazzi.

Court battle

But while the ramifications of Baby Peter have been profound for child protection and children's services across the land, much remains unresolved for Shoesmith and other key figures embroiled in the tragedy.

She lost her claim for wrongful dismissal in April this year in the High Court. But the judge expressed "a lurking sense of unease" about the case and granted her permission to take her case against the Secretary of State and Haringey Council to the Appeal Court. Shoesmith has now asked permission of the Appeal Court to include Ofsted in that process, as she regards the actions of the three parties to be linked. Much depends on whether she gets a "protective cost order" to protect her against legal costs since financial support from her professional association the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) has been exhausted. Others in Haringey are also pursuing their case.

"Everyone in Haringey was devastated at Peter Connelly's death," Shoesmith says. "People who fight on with their case feel very wronged. That's how I feel. When people say to me that I was personally responsible [for the murder of Peter Connelly], I can't actually live with that."

Balls' response to the case was to isolate responsibility with Shoesmith and the social workers involved despite the failings also of other agencies. "What Ed Balls said about me on that day was made up; his words did not appear in the published report or in the record of inspection evidence," she says. "It was absolutely clear to me the devastation that was going to cause [to the social work profession]."

"Children were never so at risk in Haringey as they were from that day because of the exodus of staff.

"We hear a lot in the news about the confidence of financial markets. And it seems that politicians understand the confidence of financial markets but not the confidence of social workers and how critical that is to them doing their job."

Care referrals of children at risk have soared in the past two years, while the orthodox preference for children to remain with their families holds less firm now than it did, and at a time when resources are getting scarcer.

"We haven't got the money to pay for it; we haven't got the residential homes, we haven't got the foster carers so supply and demand are out of kilter. We haven't got enough adoptive parents. I don't think we want to bring twice as many children into care actually. The system can't take it, the finances can't take it and we're not facing up to that."

"The whole thing is about risk management," she says, posing the question: "What is it we are prepared to live with as a society?" She favours services working better together to support whole families and she lauds children's centres as a "superb development" and "the cornerstone of prevention".

False information

But the sense of injustice over events after the mother, boyfriend and lodger were found guilty of causing Peter's death, is as deep as ever. Last week, a coroner turned down the father's request for an inquest.

Giving evidence three months ago to the Education Select Committee, Shoesmith said: "To construct a narrative so simple, which told the public that Peter Connelly died because Haringey was uniquely weak, to sack everyone from the directors to the social workers and all would be well, was quite frankly absurd."

She says: "People wanted to say 'this is uniquely Haringey'. It wasn't. But there was a move to paint that picture." The evidence in the documents Ofsted finally released to the court, Shoesmith says, showed that the record of the inspection did not match what was published but this was not the focus of the legal proceedings.

A particularly low point for Shoesmith came just after her sacking, when Ofsted chief inspector Christine Gilbert told The Guardian that Haringey managers had misled inspectors by providing inaccurate data for its 2007 Annual Performance Assessment - the year that Peter died - which rated the council's children's services as "good".

"I was unable to function that day," she says. "No evidence was ever put to the court that we had sent false information. If such evidence had existed it would have been presented. Email exchanges between the Department for Children, Schools and Families and Ofsted released to the court showed behind-the-scenes attempts to find ways to explain the differences [between the good and inadequate rating]." On the same day as The Guardian front-page story, Shoesmith's fellow directors at Haringey signed and sent her a "Thinking of You" card — just five days after her sacking and two days before her dismissal hearing: "It was confusing to say the least."

Flawed case review

Balls ordered a second serious case review into Peter's death after Ofsted had ruled the first to be "inadequate". It was completed in February 2009 with the executive summary published that May. "The first serious case review was a detailed account of what happened without any bias towards any service," Shoesmith maintains. "The second one, in my opinion, was commissioned by the Secretary of State to find the evidence to sack the social workers." On the panel for the second review were senior police officers and health directors but no-one who worked in social care services prior to December 2008. This review, unlike the first, contained no recommendations for the police or health services.

"From my perspective, the conduct of the police and health was airbrushed, but I'd invite people to read both serious case reviews and make their own judgment," Shoesmith says.

Children's minister Tim Loughton told the Education Select Committee this September that the first serious case review was "not worth the paper it was written on". Shoesmith has since written to Loughton to outline her concerns, in which she states the second review is in fact the one that is "not worth the paper it was written on". She has yet to receive a response from Loughton, with the coalition having published both reviews in full in late October.

The role of the police in the case, she says, has been severely underplayed. "Why did the public never know that the day before Peter was murdered, the police told his mother there was no case to answer, yet it was in the summary of the [first] serious case review."

She asks also, why, to compound matters, the police constructed a graphic of Peter's injuries and released it to the press. "I hadn't seen that done before. The first time I see that is when the focus is on me, so you get the photograph of me and you get the graphic. It inflamed the emotion of the nation."

Peter had of course been presented to health settings 34 times. Shoesmith points to the importance of the Kennedy Report earlier this year in uncovering systemic problems within the NHS in its work with children and child protection.

Public accountability

But for all the other agencies' shortcomings, social workers took the flak. And herein lies the nub of the matter for Shoesmith: "For me, what's underpinning everything is how we deal with public accountability. You can't have accountability models for one agency and different ones for another agency when they work together." The social workers involved in the Connelly case were subject to internal disciplinary procedures and received written warnings about errors of professional judgment. That was before the case went public.

"Public accountability for me was police officers in my bedroom screwing down the windows. It was me being advised about my safety on the streets of London. It was being photographed on the tube and on buses. It was in my name and the names of my deputy, the service manager and the two social work staff as mugshots in a national newspaper. That's what social care professionals got as accountability. Public accountability was, I think, putting our lives at risk."

So where then, does the buck stop? "We still want as a society a head on the table, a person, a face, their name... and actually it's not as simple as that". She stresses she could not be held responsible for the decisions of GPs, paediatricians and the police, professionals that fell outside her remit as the director of children's services (DCS), and wonders how her experience might impact on aspiring DCSs.

"I think the leadership training for DCSs is a tremendous development. I absolutely applaud that. My sadness at these things is that we seem to wait for these high-profile happenings to bring this sort of change in."

Social work improvements

Likewise, she applauds the creation of the College of Social Work, relating its importance to her experience: "When all of this broke there was nothing and no-one standing between me, those social workers and the lynch mob. There was no national body in the build-up to the case becoming public that I could have properly engaged with to explain to them what had happened and what the consequences might be.

"If we see a recurrence of this we need a professional body like that to stand up and be able to say something, [make] an informed statement." But she urges the college to make the public aware, where appropriate, of how social workers work in a multi-agency setting.

Shoesmith is similarly "optimistic" about the Munro review of child protection but believes its remit is too narrow. "My criticism is that it has been single-agency-focused and the reality on the ground is multi-agency working and there are a huge number of dependencies across the child protection sector." But she says there needs to be more openness and honesty and less fear in the system so that information between agencies is shared.

"You can have health workers working with a family who have a close relationship with a family but are hearing from them, 'don't tell the social worker, she'll take these children into care' and you can have very sensitive issues developing between those agencies where some things aren't shared." She says some of the issues dealt with by agencies working together, from sexual exploitation to witchcraft, "are way beyond the public's imagination".

She is due to speak at the North of England Education Conference in Blackpool early in the new year on the professional judgment of social workers, multi-agency working, public accountability and the responsibilities of DCSs.

Criticisms of policy

But Shoesmith is scathing about one recent development regarding joint working - the government's decision to remove the duty from schools to co-operate in children's trusts. "Schools hold vital knowledge and information about children on a day-to-day basis. They have a key child protection role to play so I think they should continue to have a duty to co-operate. Why go out of your way to undo that?"

As for Ofsted — where Shoesmith once worked as an education inspector— she believes inspectors should look at deployment of services' budgets and follow social workers on the frontline as far as possible to gain a more rounded picture of service quality.

On one issue of accountability, she accepts that the chairing of the local safeguarding children board (LSCB) by her as the DCS, might have given the appearance of a conflict of interest despite being common practice at the time. But she says moves since to appoint independent chairs are not the right response since many might lack the necessary child protection expertise. She says LSCBs ought to be chaired by the DCS, the health director or the borough commander.

And she does not believe the policy of publishing serious case reviews in full will achieve its objective of boosting transparency and confidence in the child protection system: "I think the impact of it will be that the detail will find itself in the internal management reports [conducted by individual agencies] that aren't published so the detail will get pushed back there and the overview report will be a slightly more benign document."

With regard to her appeal, Shoesmith says she wants also "to see the others through it". The cases of two of the others, her deputy at Haringey and the service manager, will be dependent on her own case. The social worker Maria Ward and social work manager Gillie Christou lost their unfair claims for dismissal in October.

"They are at the moment considering whether they are going to appeal... whether they have the funds to be able to appeal. I hope they find a way to fight on," Shoesmith says. Ward, having been pursued by the press and members of the public, is currently still in hiding.

Living with the aftermath

So the Peter Connelly narrative for Shoesmith and the other social care professionals remains ongoing.

"I'm still living in a time warp because I haven't been able to move on at all. I can't get any work, so the actions of the Secretary of State that day wiped out 35 years of a career and my future."

She goes on to say: "There's not a day yet that I wake up and this isn't the first thing on my mind. There had been points where I just wanted to walk off the end of the tube and just be gone."

As she faced pressure to resign back in November 2008, more than 60 Haringey head teachers wrote an open letter in support of Shoesmith, whom they deemed to have transformed education in the borough.

"It was probably Haringey's head teachers who saved my life. That letter was more significant than they will ever know. That, and my daughters, because there were some very difficult times during that period they helped me face," she says. "They have had to cope also and especially with the impact of death threats, one focused on my younger daughter by name."

In order to move on, she says: "I need to find some way of living my life knowing I wasn't blamed for the brutal murder of a child."

The repercussions of Peter Connelly's tragedy continue to reverberate in policy and practice. For one woman in particular, however, some sense of closure to this narrative is desperately required.


Timeline of key events

  • 3 August 2007 Seventeen-month-old Peter Connelly dies, having been seen more than 60 times by health professionals and social workers
  • 26 November 2008 The Sun newspaper delivers a petition to Downing Street "demanding justice for Baby P" containing more than a million signatures. The paper called for Haringey staff, and Shoesmith in particular, to be fired
  • 1 December 2008 Children's Secretary Ed Balls orders the removal of Shoesmith as Haringey's director of children's services
  • 6 January 2009 Haringey Council confirms that Shoesmith is appealing against her dismissal
  • 23 April 2010 Shoesmith fails in her attempt in the High Court to prove that she had been unlawfully dismissed
  • 1 September 2010 Shoesmith is given leave to appeal against the High Court ruling. In his ruling, Mr Justice Foskett says: "There is, in my view, a wider public interest than merely the interest arising from the circumstances of this case for a considered judgment of the Court of Appeal." The ruling relates only to an appeal against Balls and Haringey
  • 15 September 2010 Shoesmith gives evidence to the Education Select Committee, saying: "To construct a narrative so simple, which told the public that Peter Connelly died because Haringey was uniquely weak ... was quite frankly absurd"
  • 26 October 2010 The coalition government publishes the full versions of the two serious case reviews into the Peter Connelly's death in a bid to "improve transparency in the child protection system".

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