Institutional neglect: Balls, baby P, and justice

This weekend as a country we are having to take a long hard look at institutional neglect. In the latest update to the ongoing and painful collective post mortem of baby P, the courts have ruled in favour of Sharon Shoesmith, the children’s services director sacked on live television without due process by then Children’s Secretary Ed Balls.

I deliberately avoided reading about the abuse of Baby P for the whole of the saga up to this point, and I still won’t read up on the details of what actually took place. I have a son of around the same age. It is only now that we are looking at it from the relatively sterile viewpoint of examining the role played by social services, politicians, the media and the public that it really becomes bearable.

It is hardly a surprise that the appeal was won. As a politician, Balls must have been aware that this is not how removal from employment is done – in front of a tv audience, without warning, with no opportunity for explanation or reply – and his motives for delivering this “head on a plate” could be varied and are unlikely to have been as coherent as some believe. A bit of his usual swagger and bravado, a bid to gain the respect of the public from the man who would be PM? Maybe, although it would be unfair perhaps to suggest that the father of three was acting entirely in cold blood, cynically courting the masses with no emotion or anger. Perhaps he was overcome with the same impotent rage that drives the tabloids, and against what would have been better judgement, blustered along with it.

Shoesmith has won her appeal, and will now be compensated. I don’t know enough about the case to say how negligent she was, but consensus seems to be that she should have been dismissed, but it was done in the wrong way. There will be plenty who see this kind of justice as unnecessary red tape – if she needed to be removed from her job, why should the public wait? While this is an easy and probably popular view to adopt, it misses the vital role this “tape” plays in the structure of our justice system. If you push people through the system unheard then there is no justice, only punishment – you have to hear all the evidence and that includes evidence from the person you are accusing, and if it then turns out they are guilty, that doesn’t mean that they should never have been tried. It is worth remembering that however competent or incompetent she was at her job, she didn’t do those terrible things to that child.

So, on the one hand it is necessary to look at responsibility away from the emotional language of guilt, where responsibility is (as in this case) indirect.  Should there be “heads rolling” for baby P? If individuals have acted negligiently, then yes, they should go, but individual social workers do not act in a vacuum from social services as a wider structure and provision, and social services do not exist in a vacuum from government policy or spending. As adult members of a society we are all responsible for ensuring the safety of our children, and that involves joined-up thinking about not only how policy can be reviewed and improved but also looking at the provision we as a society are prepared to make to fulfill this role. If we want low taxes then that means low public spending and fewer social workers. Fewer social workers means higher case loads, higher levels of stress and fatigue, and as a result, more children falling through the cracks. Throwing money at a problem does not solve it, there has to be careful review and intelligent implementation of change, but taking money away? Absolutely increases the problem and it amazes me that so few people seem to see this.

That said, I think there is a real danger in “mobbifying” public responses to these kind of incidents. Of course the tabloids use emotive language; it doesn’t just sell papers, it simplifies complex political issues into relevant soundbites that people can easily understand and engage with. But that doesn’t mean that emotional responses from the public should be reduced to the level of caricature. I’ve seen the word “hysteria” banded about effortlessly in the last couple of weeks, not just in analysis of this latest development in the saga of baby P but also in response to public outcries over Dorries and Clarke, and it leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth. For anyone without my years of reading up on and then trying to explain Freud, let’s just say that it is in my mind an archaic and extremely misogynistic term, used both to tie women’s experiences and views to emotion rather than reason, and also to discredit emotion as having any role in reason. Labeling “the angry mob” as hysterical misses the point – we don’t and can’t think in isolation from our emotions, and our emotions do not exist independently from our thoughts. Some people are extensively educated and have a good command of language. We build up extensive and structured arguments to direct our emotions and thoughts, and sometimes these arguments defend us from the powerful and impotent feelings these kind of cases arouse. Not everyone is well-educated, not everyone has the linguistic tools to shape higher thinking about emotive issues, and to assume that there is some sort of band-wagon of rage that the public jump on without considered thought or feeling discredits the very important argument against kangaroo justice and media driven “moral-panic” as a driving force for policy.

I think what I am trying to say is that when you dismiss a mass public reaction as “knee-jerk” or “blood-baying”, even if that may reflect the tabloid’s intentions in working up these kinds of responses, then you are effectively reducing thousands of different experiences and voices to one, and dismissing the very people you should be trying to reach.


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