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Sharon Shoesmith interview

Monday 9 February 2009, 07:55

Mark Damazer Mark Damazer

We did something on Saturday's Weekend Woman's Hour we have not done for a very long time - by running at great length (about 43 minutes) the interview between Jenni Murray and the former head of Haringey Social Services - Sharon Shoesmith. Normally the programme is a compilation of some of the outstanding moments of the previous week.

Jenni Murray interviews Sharon Shoesmith on Weekend Woman's Hour.

The interview was recorded on Thursday and we chose not to wait until Monday's edition of the programme. I thought it would have more impact on Saturday - when there is normally less news flying around - and that we could run a small part of it on Today and the news bulletins - trailing forward to the full interview on Saturday afternoon.

I heard it on Thursday night and stayed in the car - bolt upright. It was a compelling piece of radio - uncomfortable, probing, emotional - in a restrained sort of way. It did indeed make a lot of news over the weekend.

It's a tribute to the programme team and its history that they got the first broadcast interview with Ms. Shoesmith. (The Guardian ran a print interview on Saturday morning - which also influenced our decision to run ours that day). No money was involved. Woman's Hour is many things - but its beating heart is journalism.

UPDATE: Mark has written a further post responding to feedback about this programme. (Jem Stone - host)


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    Comment number 1.

    The interview with Sharon Shoesmith was compelling. I though Ms Shoesmith ended the interview with a very strong argument: each year approximately 50 children die in our country at the hands of parents, relatives and boyfriends - should we therefore sack one-third of all local authority directors who are responsible for social services?

    Certainly, the interview did raise serious concerns about the value of the home visits made to the mother. I was left wondering what level of training those who carried out the visits had received. Ms Shoesmith did emphasize the deceitfulness of the mother, but surely social workers should be trained to identify deceit? If not, why bother visiting?

    I must admit that I was a bit confused during the interview. On the one hand there was the confidential report by the police recommending that Baby P be removed from his mother, (not part of the material considered in the local authority decision-making process), but on the other hand there was the police view that there was insufficient evidence to remove Baby P from his mother (1 or 2 days before his death).

    This was the first Woman's Hour programme I have listened to in years. It was very good.

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    Comment number 2.

    Fascinating radio, thank you. It seems to me that as Haringey Social Services had visited Baby P some 60 times, and had never met the person who killed baby P, because he was hiding in a cupboard when the visits took place, neither Sharon Shoesmith, nor her staff should be held responsible. Her dismissal could only be justified if she or her staff had been shown to be guilty of gross negligence. There does not appear to have been a suggestion of that, let alone proof. She should be re-instated. I was impressed by her. (I have no acquaintance with Sharon Shoesmith)

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    Comment number 3.

    I wonder if Sharon Shoesmith has ever visited one of the families she was responsible for. She said in the interview that she visited her social work staff and saw what they did but I got the distinct impression that she never went out "into the field". Also she (along with many other social services directors) came from a background in education not social work.

    Until you see one or two families (clients in social work speak) in their own homes I don't think you should be allowed to be appointed as a manager in social services. The theory is very different from the practice I can assure you.

    I had the privilege of visiting families in a deprived area of the country in the early 90s as a member of a charity so saw many of the same families that social workers visited. Health visitors were often very concerned about young children but had extremely limited resources. They were/are the only statutory service which visits all under 5s in their own homes so can act as a filter to find families in need of assistance. They don't have the resources to give frequent visits to those who need it. They do refer on families which need help.

    Some children live in chaotic families with multiple problems but nothing prepares you for the reality until you see it with your own eyes. Social workers tread a very thin dividing line between supporting parents to enable them to parent better and in deciding when a situation is so bad that the child should be removed. In my experience social workers work very hard to maintain families and it really is a last resort to remove a child. But it is very easy in the face of the daily and constant onslaught of the level of deprivation and problems to lose sight of what's "normal" and to become a little blase about it all.

    Managers can hide in their offices and work on policy and targets but at the coal face there is a very different situation. It is emotionally completely overwhelming and draining. The least a manager can do is to get out once in a while to see the reality of what they are supposed to be dealing with. This would give them at least a little understanding of what their department is really about. Until they do I don't see anything changing. They will continue to bandy about their management speak and arrange case conferences and think they are doing something useful.

    Meanwhile the Baby Ps of this world continue to suffer at the hands of their abusers.

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    Comment number 4.

    I would like to thank Mark for the way this interview was given such airtime on a Saturday, it gave me a chance to listen properly, and Jenni Murry was only a bit tabloidy in her questions.

    I was very impressed with Sharon Shoesmith and found her to be thoughtful and reflective. Ed Balls responded to the moral panic created in the media when the brave response would have been not to oust someone whose knowledge and skills were invaluable to her department. Those who were active participants in the witch hunt should consider that there is a Baby P in every local authority, and not every director of CYPS should depart because there is a death.

    A review of the legal framework, thresholds and the Children Act 1989 should now take place. Sharon mentioned the Legal Planning Meetings held about Baby P and it is the framework of the law which dictated how this case was managed. The Children Act 1989 is predicated on research which states that children are better off remaining with their families, whatever those families look like, and this often involves children experiencing poor parenting for many years. These are the families who are receiving a high level of social work support and intervention before anyone considers their children entering the care system.

    It is the Children Act which dictates working in partnership with families. It is this premise which often does lead Social Workers into the spirit of optimism that Sharon Shoesmith mentioned. Optimism which isn’t misplaced for the most part, but which is erroneous in cases where the risks are high, but evidence hasn’t been sufficient to move to proceedings. Dangerous manipulative parents who kill their children will continue still kill their children and to deceive anyone who enters the household. Social

    Families can and do effect changes but the fastest growing group of young people entering the carer system are the 10 – 14 year olds and this is the result of them remaining at home with poor parenting for all of those years. There is an argument that their outcomes would be more positive had they been accommodated earlier, because substantial damage has been done to them by the time the thresholds have been met, and we then meet the very difficult teenager who disrupts placements, and has multiple moves. This is difficult for everyone but mainly for the young person whose experience of loss and separation are consolidated.

    Workers are a lot less judgemental about family life than many who comment on this case. The fact that they don’t always intervene when you think they should is because they are not imposing their own values on families, they are abiding by a set of Social Work Values, and their Code of Ethics. While the debate is being held about when children should be removed from families I hear many comments which indicate CYPS should step in sooner, or more often. But what if I didn't like your lifestyle, morals or values? Should I impose mine? Would you like me to accommodate your children without any evidence?

    Having heard Sharon Shoesmith discuss the issues I hope people will think about their expectations of Social Workers and the policy makers will not be creating more paperwork that they think will measure performance.

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    Comment number 5.

    I think Ms Shoesmith did a fine job of explaining the complexity of working with families who are intent on hiding the truth from you and of defending the service she was responsible for. She calmly explained that out of the 60 visits we heard so much about 38 of them were not by her staff. She also explained that social workers were not visiting a child with obvious injuries, and that their legal advice had been that there was insufficient evidence to go to court with. Given that this was so why has so much responsibility and attention been directed at Social Services and so little on the health and legal services?

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    Comment number 6.

    The Irish Environment Minister should do us all a favour and look for a new job thus freeing up the position for someone who knows what they are doing!

    The mans position is untenable!

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    Comment number 7.

    Plaudits to Jenni Murray for doing an excellent job She did not try to dominate or continually interrupt in the "Humpreys" bullying manner but allowed Ms Shoesmith to have her say, while pressing where it seemed to me was quite appropriate, for example on the wholly unconvincing analogy Ms Shoesmith sought to draw with a Chief Constable needing to resign if their is a stabbing in their area.

    Overall I was left with the strong impression that Ms Shoesmith does not feel in her heart that she has any responsibility whatsoever.

    She made valid points about, for example, the fact that it is not possible "to ensure that this never happens again" to use the tired PR twaddle we get from politicians in such cases. And it does seem that as with so many other public sector activities the substantive work of child protection is severely hampered by stifling bureaucratic systems. But she gave the strong impression that servicing that bureaucracy was her main aim. She was paid a lot to head a unit that patently failed in its job and, while perhaps unlucky to be singled out, with the salary goes responsibility.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    A number of comments, not in any particular order:

    1. Ms Shoesmith comes across as quite a non-emotional 'strong' leader - just the sort of 'manager' which recent governments seem to have favoured.

    2. Some play has been made of Ms Shoesmith's high salary i.e. £100,000 per year. Yet her successor is reportedly being paid £200,000 per year.

    3. Even on £200,000 Ms Shoesmith's successor, has been reported by at least one newspaper as running services where there have been "unfortunate events" [Evening Standard 22.12.08

    4. Ms Shoesmith has been criticised by some for not having social work experience. However the present government created "Children's Services' - combining Education and Social Services under one manager. It is difficult to find a very senior manager with expertise and experience in both fields of work. Ms Shoesmith is reported as having the backing of many local headteachers - and to have improved education in Harringey.

    5. I have worked in Local Authority Children's Services at middle-management level. This included an Ofsted inspection where I did not set eyes on a single inspector even though I had responsibility for a largish number of (older) very vulnerable children.

    6. When a child dies in tragic circumstances, all hell breaks loose and A REPORT is produced. For a period of time, child safety is king. Then the fuss dies down and Finance Control reasserts authority. It is not only in Finance that we have 'boom and bust'.

    7. Ms Shoesmith makes a valid point about the Minister concerned. Policies such as "naming and shaming" and the scape-goating of a senior manager without a proper enquiry do nothing to improve morale or provide better services for vulnerable children.

    Full marks to Ms Shoesmith for speaking up for herself. And full marks to Woman's Hour and the BBC for enabling her to do so.

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    Comment number 10.

    Thank you for the Shoesmith interview, fascinating. At last, the professional in charge of the organization was given a chance to state the case as she saw it.
    For many years I worked within the family court, what I witnessed was a seemingly endless procession of sad and tragic cases, it never ceased to amaze me what cruelty adults would commit upon the innocent bodies of children.

    The work of family courts is not accessible to the general public, were it to be then the public might have a different understanding of this matter. Those who abuse children do so secretly, and make every effort to avoid detection. They lie, those who they live with lie and the cases are very difficult to prove. Even non abusing mothers of abused children often make every effort to support and hide their abusing partners. This can often be a strange world where desperate people will do anything for the smallest sign of love.

    My impression of those who work within the child protection services is that the do a thankless job with as much professionalism and dedication as is possible. They walk the tightrope of child safety and parent’s rights.
    We should not blame Ms Shoesmith for the criminal acts of others; our opprobrium should be aimed at the child’s killers and not those who did their best to assist what was subsequently discovered to be an abusive and lying family.

    We live in a world where to be a professional seems to be to accept the role of the individual who ultimately takes the blame. The reality of the world is that risk is everywhere; even the smallest of children are occasionally killed by their parents or step parents, and no matter how much we castigate Ms Shoesmith this, sadly, will always be the case.

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    Comment number 11.

    Thanks. Mark has responded to the comments about the interview and also some of the email directly to Woman's Hour in a further blog post.

    Jem Stone (host)

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    Comment number 12.

    An excellent and engaging piece of radio - thank you.

    Miss Shoesmith is clearly an articulate and intelligent woman who was well paid for her abilities. However, in any case where such a catalogue of errors leads to the death of a young child, someone must shoulder responsibility. Such acceptance of responsibility seems to have leaked from our society. We have many public figures and well paid executives who seem to feel it is more appropriate to defend their actions than to accept their part in it. Miss Shoesmith was in charge, it happended under her control, why should she be exempt from failing to protect an innocent child?

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    Comment number 13.

    Thankyou for the in depth interview of Sharon Shoesmith. It made me think a little harder about a profession I have worked in for forty years this year, and still struggle to perform conscientiously in the face of so much pressure, criticism and dilution of resources. When I first became a social work manager, a job I obtained within the area team where I had been working for five years, I was shocked to discover the level of disrespect of the frontline workers that was part of the management culture. They were seen as doing the dirty work, going into the homes and trying to forge relationships with very difficult people but they were not respected, rather as garbage disposal operatives are not respected. Managers there seemed to feel that the social workers were contaminated by this close contact, and the longer they remained in basic grade posts, the less they were respected. As one contributor pointed out, these managers did not do home visits, even at the middle level, and soon lost contact with the tough and stressful reality of the job. Far from getting support, social workers were told to get out of the kitchen if they didn't like the heat. Toughness was all. Concern about a particular child could be and was minimised in this set up. I attracted some scorn when I opted to go back to social work practise. That was twenty five years ago, and much has changed in terms of procedures, but I do sometimes wonder if the attitudes have changed much. The gut feeling of an experienced social worker, appropriately supported and recognised, can be all that stands between a child and a sad and brutal death.

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    Comment number 14.

    I was impressed by the interview but afterwords I began to reflect upon the fact that after the Victoria Climbie case in the same borough both the the Director of Social Services and the Assistant Director of Social Services were given references that enabled them to become Directors of Social Services in two neighbouring boroughs where everyone on the interview panels must have known about the Climbie case. While I feel that Shoesmith has a case to argue for compensation under employment law, I also feel pleased that she was not given the kid gloves treatment that her two predecessors so shamefully received.

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    Comment number 15.

    I have worked, as a Headteacher in Haringey, for 13 years now and have worked for at least 9 Directors in that time. Since 2002, when Sharon Shoesmith was appointed Director of Education, we have had some continuity and leadership that has enabled schools to move forward. Sharon had been in charge of social services for less than 2 years when the Baby 'P' tragedy happened. (because of the merger of education and social services). During those years, I can assure you that we in schools felt social services and the relationship with schools was finally improving. Meetings were held, reports and minutes sent to us, and follow-up work was done after referrals. Many new initiatives had begun which we hoped that, with time, would make children in Haringey safer. There was a long way to go, but improvements had begun. Since the dismissal of our Director and the media witch hunt of her and the social workers involved, along with their families, Haringey has once again felt like a Local Authority that has been battered and bruised. We have to start again to build up systems and confidence amongst services and the public. This is no easy task and it is certainly true that children in our borough are more at risk today as a result of the low morale and the social workers who are leaving in their droves. And who can blame them after the way they have been vilified in the press?
    I thought Sharon Shoesmith tried hard to explain the complexities of this tragic case, and I think she was very brave to trust the media at all. Sadly, I thought the usually wonderful Jenny Murray was overly aggressive this time and didn't fully understand the timing of the events. She also kept repeating "60 visits..60 visits.." Jenny didn't seem to hear when Sharon said that 40 of those visits were from the health department. Do people realise that the Health services are not under children's services? The independent case review findings were that the only time that there could have been definite proof that the injuries were non-accidental was during the paediatric assessment the day before his death: this was the time when the Doctor refused to examine him. Yes, it seems that the doctor has been suspended, but why has there been no comment on the management by the Primary Care trust? Jenny also kept talking about an alleged request by the police to take the child into care, but the police are the only people who can charge a parent with abuse: they felt they did not have enough evidence. Social workers and teachers can not examine children: they are reliant on the medical profession.
    But this is not to blame any more professionals: what we as headteachers requested was a calm, thorough assessment of systems and ways to go forward in the future. Unfortunately Ed Balls failed to respond, or even reply to a letter sent by 70 Headteachers, and chose instead to be influenced by the Sun and the Mail.
    I don't believe his actions will help children in Haringey be safer. I also think that the very personal attacks on Sharon and her family are totally unjustified, and I am shocked to know that sections of the media are allowed to invade the privacy of public servants in this way.
    I don't know if the Woman's Hour interview will have helped the public to understand the difficulties and complexities of the case; nor do I feel the true dreadfulness of the personal effect of this on Sharon and the social workers involved, really came through. But I am grateful to Woman's Hour for at least giving her an opportunity to try to put her side of the story.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Having worked with social workers (among other health professionals) as an interpreter, I came to see that there is such a complex, or should I say complicated, system in place for dealing with cases of all kinds (from asylum-seeking to housing to probation etc), that it is Not easy for the people working in these areas to fulfil their remits.
    Frequently there are several bodies looking into a case; the communication between these bodies takes time - if it takes place. The usual difficulties of communication - jealousies, protectionism, Time etc - impede the aim, which is to handle the cases and the people concerned as quickly and efficiently as possible.
    Sometimes (more than sometimes?) social workers are dealing with violent or potentially violent people who know their rights, but care not about their own responsibilities to the situation.
    The pay for this kind of job is insufficient, a difficult job requires a decent salary. The people are insufficiently trained; and I saw that some (again, more than some) had their own problems which, not being dealt with, made it hard for them to deal with other people's.
    I even had a couple who said to me they were on the edge of a breakdown, as the people they were dealing with were frighteningly aggressive. I saw what they meant during interviews; immature, inconderate, out to get all they can from the State (putting nothing in of course), and being from unhelpful to manipulative to aggressive. There were times I was physically and emotionally glad I was able to walk awayonce I'd done my part of the job!
    As an outsider, being merly an interpreter, I am not allowed to say anything; although sometimes wondered if communicating with people "outside the box" might be helpful?
    As for sacking Sharon Shoesmith - would she have been sacked if she'd been a man? This is NOT a sexist comment; merely a surmise that some people, who have been in the limelight for various "wrongdoings", are still in their jobs...
    I would suggest to the bodies concerned much more and better training, with personal therapy as part of the training; and better pay for an extremely difficult job.
    I found Jenni Murray's interviewing very good (as usual) except that she kept on about the 60 visits, but did not hear the reply re those visits. Her calm and measured voice kept the tone in a way that helped to get across Ms Shoesmith's side of the situation.

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    Comment number 18.

    Interesting, that someone thought Jenni Murray's interview was not too "tabloidy". I though it very tabloidy. Murray kept harping on about the very points that the tabloids got hysterical about.

    I thought Sharon Shoesmith was impressive. Her position is very difficult to explain to people who don't know the ins and outs of social service practice, but she managed pretty well and I for one, felt wiser for it. I also thought she kept her cool very well in face of Murray's emotive questioning.

    The affair reflects very badly on my former "profession" and not particularly well on Ed Balls, who did what "new" Labour politicians are all too good at, caving in to tabloid bullying and the consequent public outcry.

    As the head teacher's comment makes clear, Sharon Shoesmith was making a difference. It's a shame she's not there to complete the job.

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    Comment number 19.

    It's good to hear that this interview forms the basis of the above comment.
    I felt strongly that Ms Shoesmith's self centered stance gave away the fundamental tradegy of social services "service-delivery" at management level.
    Jackie Hill suggests above that there have been 9 directors in 13 years! What does this say about personal career progression over commitment to the job?
    I was a merchant navy officer for many years. It is a well worn anecdote consistently proven that a happy ship is one that has an effective captain.
    A ship with a poor captain has low morale, is scruffy and always has dirty lifeboats compromising safety. Without attention to detail, inspecting the lifeboats, doing the drills etc etc. you might as well write off your life in any emergency. On the other hand a ship with an effective captain, is clean, has a contented crew and you can know the lifeboats are always ready for action, properly kitted out and ready in an emergency.
    This anaolgy is true for all organisations.
    We have heard yesterday many half cynical apologies from the senior banking management following their disgraceful failure to keep their lifeboats clean.
    It is ALWAYS a management failure when a child dies. It is always a failure of management not to ensure "Working Together" works properly. There is NO sharing of blame with the Health service, the police etc. It is the duty of all these managers to make sure multi agency communication is maintained to protect those in their joint care. To be upset and feel poersonally wronged shames Sharon Shoesmith. I am sure if a Borough Commander in the police was away a specific person was likely to be knifed and killed and failed to take action to try to prevent it, then another dismissal would be appropriate. To cite such nonsence as a comparison to justify not getting sacked shows a basic reason for not allowing her to do the job. The interview rightly allowed her a voice, but lets feel too sorry for a manager who simply didn't manage well enough to save a life.

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    Comment number 20.

    The 'system' as described appears to bend over backwards to keep families together.

    The same people acceding to such a mindset would be appalled if, in the case of Domestic Abuse, the same weight was given to ensuring a woman remained with an abusive partner (Abuse, in calculating the oft quoted statistics, is not just actual and physical).

    Recent cases, e.g. the girl removed from caring grandparents, show the inconsistencies in Social services.

    Sharon Shoesmith came across as articulate and strong (and why not, she is well educated and experienced in a 'Meeting' culture). However, she seemed to have had a 'hands off' approach in her management style which prevented her appreciation of the 'coal-face'.

    She would have been well aware of the history of management failures and turnover in the area and, in taking the position, should have been under no illusiions as to her ultimate accountability should her department be party to another Victoria Climbie incident.

    The fact that she did not resign, but actually defended the actions of her department when it was clear that there had been serious errors, left her as a target for the tabloid press. Ed Balls had little choice in withdrawing all support from her; after all she was in charge when another 'horror' occurred in Haringey.


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