Monday, December 1, 2008

Justice for Baby P

The people who actually killed Baby P are languishing in prison cells, hopefully sharing with people who help them feel what it means to be scared.

Those who mismanaged the resources entrusted to them to save his life have now stood down, or in the case of the hopeless Head of Children's Services Sue Shoesmith, been sacked.

While it was Roy Keane's resignation I was expecting today (he has, after all, lost four home game for Sunderland), I felt lighter as I heard the read-out speeches from the Councillors who oversaw all of this.

I have a funny attitude to these Councillors. On the one hand, I know how little they have to do with what actually goes on in Services. The ones I know are all old duffers in their 70s and 80s who are intellectually and educationally inferior to senior officers of the council.

The brighter ones I know do their best in a job that is basically voluntary and in which they do not have nearly as much influence over what happens as senior managers.

Their principal job as Councillors is to make the right pick. Get this wrong and they are buggered, as they clearly were in the choice of Shoesmith whose radio appearances said all you needed to know.

An identikit LA manager, Shoesmith showed incredible sensitivity to the plight of her staff and very little emotion around the fact that a child on her watch had his head gounged, his fingertip cut off, his earlobe torn and his back broken under the watchful gaze of her department.

One of these wonderful staff, only a week before Baby P gave up the fight, wrote in a report that "Baby P's mother feels stressed out by the accusations made about her". Bet she did.

No, its senior managers I mostly blame. Complaisant non-leaders like Shoesmith who don't really cut it as senior managers because, when it comes down to it, they put their own survival above their own responsibilities.

But not all the blame goes there. Back to politicians for a second. National politics is dominated by young men like Ed Balls who has never run anything in his life outside Whitehall. He will just bash out a new set of rules that are as bad as the old ones and feel he has made a difference.

What local politicians spend an awful lot of time and energy doing is politicking. Both within their parties and between. If even half of this energy went on the oversight they are elected to provide we might have half of Baby P type cases.

Indeed there is a strong case for local government to be mostly politics-free. You'd find a lot more people wanted to do it and this would mean that in places like Suffolk which are, essentially one-party states, people of talent who don't happen to be members of the Conservative Party would step forward and actually make local government a dynamic place rather than some geriatric version of the student union.

Yes, better quality people who are elected for what they can do rather than the colour of their rosette would realise that report after report setting out new processes and systems will never make these problems go away.

This atrocity happened four years after Laming, a few streets away from where Victoria Clumie died. , supposedly after the system was overhauled by Every Child Matters. Today's OFSTED report sounds tiresomely like the one written by him after the death of Victoria (or simply `Clumbie' as George Meehan, ex-Leader of Haringey called her today).

No,what we need are councillors, MPs and politicians who don't just call for a different kind of regulation. We need people who understand that what's wrong in child protection is more about people, culture, systems and leadership. We have the best rules in the world, its just that the set-up around them is warped: Council child protection can't easily recruit the right kind of staff because people of talent don't want to work in them. Everyone knows that certain councils are toxic, bureaucratic and badly managed, a one-way ticket to a personal crisis yourself. So the wrong people go there and, hey, the best ones end up being promoted into management and then senior management. Next thing you know, Sharon Shoesmith is running the show and, Christ, how does that make you feel?

Next time I talk about this I will, I promise be constructive. Right now I just still feel angry.

1 comment:

Rob Fountain said...

This case - and the reaction to it - have really got my thinking. I'm aware that as angry as you have (naturally) found yourself, I know I have had an automatic desire to defend the social work profession (not to be confused with defending the social workers involved). Turning to the future in terms of considering what action might be needed as flagged by the Baby P case (and today I hear the implication of 'the system' in the Shannon Matthews case), I wonder if it is as 'simple' as this: Statutory involvement should be focussed solely on protection - taking decisive action with children and families in partnership with police, health services, the courts. The wider 'family support' function that is vital in terms of preventative, empowering input with families having difficulties should be passed (including budget) to the Third Sector. People already see 'social services' as the 'soft-police', as the child-snatchers, a threat, so let them clearly fulfil that vital function. The partnership working with families that the Children Act wants to promote is crucial, but (perhaps this latest case is trying to tell us) only in non-protection work. Of course in practice there are significant grey areas between the support and protection, but with remits separated between sectors, I'd suggest that the grey would be easier for practitioners and parents alike to navigate than it is for a front-line worker currently told to engage constructively with parents and simultaneously held accountable for any act a parent might commit against their child.