When a child dies, it is often social workers whose names pop up in the press, who are vilified and blamed. Following the recent media attention around the death of adopted Elsie Scully-Hicks (Shayla), this has become a topic of discussion again within the social work community – not that it has ever gone away (we recently wrote about Elsie’s case here).

Ray Jones writes in Community Care that :

‘This targeting of social workers and managers echoes the reaction to Baby P’

He describes a case involving a recent child death where

The Sun, as it has done before, named all the social workers and the health visitor, but not the doctors, involved in a case where a child died. It door-stepped the wife of the recently retired director of social services and visited the home of a social worker, whose photograph was then printed in The Sun.

He doesn’t say in so many words that he is talking about Shayla’s case, but it seems pretty clear that he is, because he links to Camilla Cavendish’s column in The Times on 12 Nov which ran with the standfirst :

A toddler’s murder by her adopter reveals a failure by social workers to challenge each other’s decisions. They must be trained to do so.

Jones is probably referring to this article in The Sun (See box at bottom – ‘Execs quit after death’) :

HANG HIM – Real grandmother of Elsie Scully-Hicks demands adopted dad who killed her face the death penalty – and slams social services for not spotting the tot’s injuries

Though it is clear that in this instance The Sun have selected only social work managers for criticism, rather than others (presumably on the basis that these are the people the birth family consider responsible), it is fair to say that the names of most of the professionals were already in the public domain as a result of the criminal trial. They are also now named in the family court judgment, as is usual. Different people will probably have different views about whether it is appropriate to call at these former managers’ homes and ask for comment, but it is hardly unprecedented.

So, what other coverage of the social work practice in this case has there been? Well, not perhaps as much as one might expect in cases of this sort. The Telegraph have run a piece headlined :

Judge criticises social workers for failing to take action over baby who was murdered by her adoptive father

– in light of the publication of Mr Justice Moor’s judgment. In fact, on our interpretation, the judge is primarily critical of the poor record-keeping of professionals in respect of their observations of a bruise on Elsie’s forehead in late 2015. The bruise was not one of the injuries associated with her death and was not treated as suspicious at the time (perhaps understandably, given the otherwise glowing reports and the developmental stage of the child). There is no suggestion in the judgment of Mr Justice Moor that the bruise should have been identified as suspicious at that time, although it is noted that the adoption court was not told about it (but it seems unlikely that this would have impacted on the adoption going ahead). The question of whether there was any social work failure around the earlier injuries will be for the Child Practice Review to consider.

In addition there is the Cavendish article (link above).

Anyone who has read the detailed judgment of Mr Justice Moor published yesterday will be able immediately to see the paucity of Cavendish’s analysis of the case. She says

By the end, Elsie’s injuries were described as being similar to those caused by a car crash: fractured ribs, bleeding in her brain and haemorrhages behind her eyes. Yet she had been seen by social workers, doctors and a health visitor

– as if Elsie was presenting over a period of time with such injuries, when in fact all her injuries were acute, bar an older leg fracture which was consistent with the explanation given at the time and so was (without the benefit of hindsight) not a warning flag, and the bruise to her forehead which was noted but not treated as suspicious in a toddler.

Cavendish talks of a failure by professionals to spot the warning signs. Whilst Mr Justice Moor’s judgment does not exonerate the professionals involved (who, as Cavendish acknowledges included medics and health visitors as well as social workers), neither is there anything in the judgment that obviously supports any proposition that social workers failed inappropriately to challenge the decisions of other social workers.

Cavendish asks “Were professionals treading extra carefully because the couple were gay?”. Mr Justice Moor says this is just not a relevant factor and there is no reason to think otherwise. It seems only to be some sections of the media who feel it is necessary to describe this couple as “gay” at every headline opportunity.

In fact, of Cavendish’s “catalogue of failures”, one is the failure by a medic (not a social worker) to spot a second fracture on an x-ray (not something one can criticise social workers for), and another is the decision making around Elsie’s grandmother’s application to care for Elsie. This second issue is a legitimate area for question – but as Cavendish is forced to acknowledge “We do not know why Vale of Glamorgan council rebuffed O’Brien’s attempts to care for her granddaughter.” Perhaps it was for good reason, perhaps not. But it is somewhat premature to put this on the list of failures.

Cavendish wants to know what was wrong with the assessment process if it could approve a monster. The answer might be – a lot. But it might just be that assessment processes can never, sadly, capture and identify all potential monsters. Another matter that Cavendish does not know the answer to.

Nonetheless she says “In Elsie’s case, they got it wrong” (our emphasis). Perhaps. Certainly, in Elsie’s case something went tragically wrong. But we really don’t know yet whether there was anything that could have been done to prevent this death, and there is limited evidence at present to even point in that direction beyond the bare facts that the adopters were given a glowing report that we now know did not spot the potential of one of them to murder a child. The judgment of Mr Justice Moor does not corroborate Cavendish’s criticisms, but the Child Practice Review may well. Let’s wait and see. Ray Jones is right to complain of “knee jerk accusations of failure”.

So, there is some criticism of social workers in press coverage of this case but it is nothing like the level of vilification in connection with the Baby P case (we are not suggesting the pieces we’ve highlighted are an exhaustive list, merely those which are most notable). Most of the headlines were focused on the defendant, choosing often to incorporate the (irrelevant) fact that the adopters were gay. It is depressing to think that it is possibly the lure of such potential headlines has meant the press have been distracted from such an intense focus on social workers as in some other high profile child death cases.

A few days before Jones’ piece was published, Community Care also ran this piece :

BASW attacks media after death threats against social workers named in articles

The association said the risk to social workers outweighed any public interest defence for naming them

Whilst it is wrong for the press to jump the gun in accusing social workers of failures that they cannot currently evidence, and whilst it is wrong if they harass social workers or endanger them through emotive coverage that precipitates or incites criminal conduct by others – it is worrying to see the suggestion that the risks outweigh the public interest in them being named.

Looking at the evidential basis for the proposition that the risks mean that the doing of open justice must be put to one side, BASW say that :

…two national publications had named the social workers involved in one of these cases, and this led to death threats and a “barrage of personal abuse” against the workers on social media.

It’s not clear if one of these includes the managers in Shayla’s case named by The Sun, but on any basis such incidents are clearly (thankfully) rare. But it is important to note that the conduct that is described by BASW is criminal conduct and should have been reported to the police and acted upon. The answer to such criminal conduct and harassment is for the police to take action, and / or for the social worker’s employer to support them in terms of personal security, and protective measures such as injunctions if warranted. We would also expect social work employers to support the making of complaints to IPSO on behalf of employees affected. It is not clear from the summary given by Jones or the material published in The Sun whether there was a breach of clauses 2 or 3 of the IPSO Editor’s Code (Privacy and Harassment). If the “doorstepping” was not persistent it might not amount to harassment, and there is arguably no reasonable expectation of privacy on a public pavement as appears to be shown in the picture.

Death threats and harassment by members of the public is unacceptable and, no doubt, highly distressing for the social workers involved, but the suggestion that the press should be barred from naming social workers it wishes (rightly or wrongly) to criticise in the public interest in order to prevent harrassment is unlikely to improve the public’s confidence in the social work profession.

BASW rightly identify that employers have the primary responsibility to handle threats against social workers and offer them advice in terms of seeking support and protection. But we cannot let the unacceptable actions of a minority of individuals prevent the wider public from understanding what is done in their own name. Those responsible should be prevented and punished. And where material is published which wrongly criticises social workers it should be called out and complaints pursued. But such is the importance and responsibility of child protection social work that it is inevitable there will be public concern wherever a child turns out not to have been protected. And such is human nature, it is inevitable that people will be tempted to try and identify someone to blame.

Feature pic : courtesy of Jane Cockman (flickr creative commons) – thanks!