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Social workers ‘to take negative hit’ over Arthur and Star deaths

The social work profession will likely take “a negative hit” when the forthcoming Child Safeguarding Practice Reviews into the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson are published, Dr Sharon Shoesmith has warned.

Dr Sharon Shoesmith

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes  died on 17 June 2020 aged six years old following months of abuse and neglect. His step-mother Emma Tustin was found guilty of his murder while Arthur's father, Thomas Hughes, was found guilty of manslaughter by a jury at Coventry Crown Court. The couple also faced four charges of cruelty to a child.

Star Hobson was just 16 months old when she was taken to hospital on 22 September 2020 after suffering a cardiac arrest and sadly died the same day. Her mother Frankie Smith has been found guilty for causing or allowing the death of a child while Frankie’s partner Savannah Brockhill has been found guilty of murdering Star following a trial at Bradford Crown Court.

Addressing a social work audience at a Virtual Event to coincide with Social Work Week last week, Dr Shoesmith – who was dismissed without warning by former children’s secretary Ed Balls during a live televised press conference in December 2008 following the death of Baby Peter Connelly – said that if things go wrong then social workers are to blame.

“When something goes wrong, the immediate conclusion is social workers didn’t care, didn’t think, weren’t bothered and it gets worse. Some of those things are absolutely shocking and really disturb us all,” said Dr Shoesmith, author of ‘Learning from Baby P – The politics of blame, fear and denial’.

“When you know that something has happened, that a child has been brutally murdered, it skews the public perception of how predictable it was, or how preventable it was. Predictable and preventable are very simplistic concepts. You listen in to the news and they reported on Arthur’s murder and they say the Child Safeguarding Practice Reviews will find out how predictable it was. I would say we must be aware of reviews which find out that with hindsight that a death was predictable,” she explained.

Dr Shoesmith added that there is a strong evidence base so say it really was a cultural trope - that if things go wrong then social workers are to blame. Atrocious storylines in soap operas and TV dramas featuring social workers perpetuate the issue, she added.

However, the reality is that up and down the country, there are social workers working with all sorts of people, changing lives for people, changing lives for children.

“What worries me is that the public don’t know it. We know the work that is going on up and down the country, but the public don’t know it,” said Dr Shoesmith.

During a discussion, the group highlighted how social work is a hidden profession because social workers cannot talk about the good work they do due to data protection laws and that even when a family has a successful outcome following social work intervention, the family themselves are unlikely to discuss it with friends or the community as they do not want to be seen as a family needing assistance.

But Dr Shoesmith said she would love to see a cross-parliamentary select committee where social workers can present the challenges they face and outline the realities of the work they do to ensure their voices are heard in Parliament.

Dr Shoesmith added that there are 110,000 social workers in the UK and each one is potentially at the mercy of the next adult who commits familial child homicide, and that’s likely to be about 50 a year. “The fear it produces stalks the profession and inevitably drives policy and practice.”

“I would love to see social workers unite under one strong, independent, representative body to have access to litigation and a clear right to a fair hearing, rather than trial by the media. I was a in a union that got me into the High Courts but I had to pay a heck of a lot to get myself into the Appeal Court. But Peter’s social workers had nothing behind them, they hadn’t joined anything, they had so little behind them and they never did get a fair hearing, even though the GSCC (General Social Care Council and regulator of social work at the time of Baby Peter Connelly's death on 3 August 2007) supported the view that they were not at fault, but it was long after the case, long after they’d lost their jobs, so my main message is to join a union and get protected.”

“Of course I support your campaign #Respect4SocialWork but I’ve long believed that only social workers themselves can change the public perception of social workers. How can we work together as a workforce, a profession to change this culture we’re in?” she concluded.

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