Learning the lessons from the tragic case of baby Peter Connelly
The familiar image of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed and blue-jumpered Peter ‘Baby P’ Connelly stood on a black and white chequered floor will “haunt people who were part of the process of the review forever,” the chair of the Haringey Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB), Professor Graham Badman, told students assembled at a recent seminar held at the University of Dundee to discuss what lessons have and can still be learned from Peter’s too-short life and death.
The social work students heard the unique insights of Badman, a former director of education and director of children’s services, who was appointed by the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, in December 2008 to take over as chair of the LSCB, and also Sarah Peel, who was formerly performance and business development manager for Haringey LSCB and was recently recruited to the post of group manager and local authority designated officer at City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Board to help take forward Hackney’s radical new approach to children’s services.
Badman asked the students to take another look at the famous picture.
“Have a good look at this little boy. I don’t know when this was taken… but when you look at it he looks perfectly healthy and ok. At that stage he was probably at the 75th centile in terms of his body weight. Medical records indicated that early on he had a normal developmental stage. When he died he was at the 9th centile. So somewhere over that intervening period this child’s weight dropped dramatically.”
Before they go out to practice in a few years time the students will have the benefit of their high quality training, Badman said. However, he advised them to reflect on this early image of Peter and to “never ever doubt the evidence of your own eyes or instinct.” Going into social work is a “very brave move”, he told the students.
“I won’t put words into your head but my guess is you are doing it out of compassion, an affection for other people’s children, but fundamentally because you believe you can make the world a better place, you can change the world, you can have influence on society that makes it more secure, safer, better in a whole raft of ways.
“The only danger is if you believe too strongly that you can change the world every now and then you will be confronted by someone who has a completely different set of norms than you who will see that as your weakness, will challenge your assumption about them and manipulate you. That is what happened in the case of Tracey Connelly.”
Throughout her entire engagement with protection services Tracey Connelly constantly “tested” the safeguarding of child protection systems with “lies and fabrication and she found them wanting,” he said. Peel urged the students to “test what they hear against what they see,” and to not just accept it at face value. “Participation is not the same as cooperation. Don’t confuse that willingness to comply with an actual willingness to accept the need for change,” she cautioned.
If you take away one message from today, Badman and Peel said, let it be this: “Are they lying? Of course they are.” Peel explained: “People said, ‘You can’t say that.’ I think you have to say that.” To the families they visit social workers represent authority and the image of the miserable social worker turning up with the sole purpose of taking somebody’s children away is a “very powerful myth”, she said.
“If you internalise that then that is at the route of all your fears. You will do what you can – to prevent that from happening. So, as was the case with Tracey Connelly, you will tell the authorities what you think they want to hear and if they are muggins they will sit there and say, ‘Thank you. We are making progress.’ They wont test that.”
There were six occasions where Peter’s life “could have and should have been saved”, Badman stated. However, “authoritative practice” was lacking across all the agencies involved.
He explained: “Peter was first placed on a child protection plan in 2006 so the mechanisms for protecting him should have been there but all sorts of things have been missed.
A GP, for example, accepted the explanation of one set of bruises that he had fallen down the stairs. At that age Peter was but a few months old and not ambulant. He couldn’t crawl so how could he have got to the steps? No one asked the simple and obvious question, ‘How did that child get there?’” But Badman believes we need to go further still. Alongside authoritative practice there need to be authoritative professionals, he said.
“I don’t just want authoritative practice, I want authoritative professionals. I want social workers who are tough and actually slightly difficult, who want to speak the truth and are challenging not just about their clients, and to their clients, but are also challenging to their managers. They are challenging to the very organisations that employ them because in the end any system is only as good as that frontline practitioner. So it means you being aware of your professional power and using it.”
Badman advised the students to “make up your own mind and do something”, and to make sure that their partnerships with their clients don’t prevent them from giving the hard messages. “So go change the world, please do. But do so with a big thing on your shoulder that says scepticism.”