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Blame for Baby P case drove me to brink of suicide, says Sharon Shoesmith

By Allan Preston

Published 23/08/2016

Sharon Shoesmith
Sharon Shoesmith
Peter Connelly
Learning from Baby P

Sharon Shoesmith, the social worker from Newtownabbey at the centre of the Baby P scandal, has said that being blamed for the child's death pushed her close to suicide.

Ms Shoesmith was head of Haringey Council Children's Services in north London in 2007 when 17-month-old Peter Connelly was beaten to death.

Baby P suffered more than 50 injuries from Steven Barker, his mother's partner and his paedophile brother Jason Owen.

A highly public sacking of Ms Shoesmith followed, after a report exposed serious failings in her department.

In her new book - Learning from Baby P - she said the public backlash, which included relentless tabloid criticism and thousands of abusive messages from strangers, led her to consider taking her own life.

"I remain anxious someone is going to come at me," she explained in an interview with the Guardian.

Despite the public outrage, she refused to quit her post at the time, insisting that it would have confirmed her direct responsibility.

But she was unprepared to handle her sacking live on television by the former Labour secretary Ed Balls.

"I was frozen to the spot for a long time.

"That was the point of absolute shock, mental and physical horror that took years to overcome," she said.

Peter Connelly
Peter Connelly

A colleague advised her there was "no way back from this", telling her to change her name and start all over again.

But she insisted: "Having spent a lifetime working for children, I was unable to countenance being held responsible for the murder of a child.

"My resignation would most certainly have signified personal responsibility, and the many distortions of what had been reported in the media would remain unchallenged.

"I was being invited to take the blame, or be the scapegoat for the killing of Peter Connelly, presented as my 'public accountability'."

There is an acceptance now that she will forever be associated with Peter Connolly's death in the public eye.

"I do not have a choice really. It's what I have to live with," she said.

After being sacked without compensation, she launched a judicial review for unfair dismissal in March 2009, winning two years later.

The ruling said she was "entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly, and not summarily scapegoated" and that Ed Balls denied her "elementary fairness".

Despite the victory, she said the strain of the case meant: "I was starting to lose my grip on reality."

She speaks of crossing the street to see familiar faces, only to realise they were strangers.

"When you lose it all at once, your brain is searching out familiarity," she explained.

Her book is based on her PhD at Birkbeck University, an endeavour she started after becoming virtually unemployable.

She criticises the so-called 'Baby P effect' that followed the media storm, with a claim that 20,000 extra children a year have been taken into care by social workers since 2008, something she calls a huge over reaction.

Tabloids say the new book is a cash-in on the scandal. But she says she received no advance and any royalties will be spent raising awareness of child homicides.

She admits some satisfaction at the fall from grace of one of her accusers, former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, but is more understanding of Ed Balls.

"He had the whole of Labour's social policy for a decade on his shoulders. I can see where he was coming from," she said.

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