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Shoesmith's scapegoating symbolic of blame culture

The “scapegoating” of Sharon Shoesmith is symbolic of the political interference suffered by social workers across the UK, BASW’s Chief Executive Bridget Robb said.

Ms Robb claimed there was a “knee-jerk” reaction, fuelled by the press and politicians, that sought to lay blame on social workers every time a vulnerable child, or adult, died through abuse or neglect.

She praised Ms Shoesmith for challenging her sacking as head of Children’s Services in Haringey Council in 2008 by former Children’s Minister Ed Balls over the death of Peter Connolly. In October, the Court of Appeal concluded Ms Shoesmith had been “unfairly scapegoated” and her removal from office was “intrinsically unfair and unlawful”.

Speaking in the wake of Community Care’s Baby P Legacy Five Years On conference yesterday, Ms Robb said: “What Sharon Shoesmith went through was the worst kind of scapegoating. As a director of childrens services from an education background, she was rightly held to account for the work of her department, but the unquestioning personal and professional attacks on her were outrageous and symbolic of an unhealthy child protection system run from Westminster.

“Like others in the caring professions, people are motivated to become social workers out of a sense of wanting to help others, not for status or self-promotion. But that can make us an easy target for this kind of knee-jerk vilification to satisfy what seems like an insatiable lust for blame in public service.

“As a profession, we need to get better at standing up for ourselves, at explaining what we do and the challenges we face. But we can’t do it alone. Local authorities, as the biggest employers of social workers, have a vital role to play in helping to educate the public about our work.

"We need directors like Sharon Shoesmith to stand up to the pressures from local and national politicians as well as the media and speak out for the good child protection services they are running. Politicians and the media must also be less focused on votes and circulation figures and more responsible in what they say about our profession. There are some people listening – we will work with everyone who wants to make our society a better and safer place for children.

“Social workers are not the enemy of the state, they are the people trying their best - and in the vast majority of cases succeeding - in stopping harm to children and adults alike. We must stop being treated like a political football. We need all professionals working together – challenging each other and doing the best for children without fear of the next political interference or media attack."

Ms Shoesmith told conference delegates that the “automatic vilification” of social workers was their “Achilles heel”.

She said: “The most horrendous events that are going to happen in local government are going to happen to children. And they are going to happen to social workers.”

She said a “deep-rooted need for certainty” in public service resulted in a need to point the finger of blame when tragedy occurs so everyone else can “breathe a sigh of relief and get on with their job”.

“You are a symbol, that is what a scapegoat is. You can carry everybody’s sins away and up the hillside. This is the nature of the public accountability we are all subject to and it makes everyone else feel a lot better.”

Describing her own vilification, Ms Shoesmith said public accountability for her meant "being thrown to the mob".

Ms Shoesmith called for a shift in approach in public accountability based on “knowledge and understanding that draws on honesty, on integrity, solidarity, courage, realism and reflection”.

And she made a plea to local government to “take the lead” in changing the current culture of blame, adding: “You have allowed yourself to be drawn into it. Turn outwards with greater confidence and tell the public about the vast amount of work you are doing to protect children. Tell them about pitfalls, the errors, the dilemmas. What’s possible, what’s not possible. Educate the public, educate the politicians and some elements of the press about the dangers facing children.”