IN the years since Baby P's death, the horror of his story hasn't faded in our imaginations.
So graphic were the details of his of his injuries - the tooth found in his colon, the back broken, probably over a knee, the bit of the ear missing - that for anyone who read them, it probably never will. Each new story of child neglect and abuse seems to bring us back to this tragic case: "Not another Baby P?"
That's why it seemed shocking to hear, in the space of a single week, reports that former Haringey children's services director Sharon Shoesmith, on whose watch he died, has been awarded a reputed £600,000 payout for unfair dismissal; then later, that Tracey Connelly, the boy's mother, has been released from prison after five years.
Both these events seemed like an insult to the memory of little Peter Connelly and his brief life. Both seem like too much forgiveness, too soon. And both make us feel somehow that justice has not been served. Yet it has been. In its own cool way, the law has been doing what it is supposed to do. It has been seeing to it that people get what they deserve.
We should try to remember this before we start baying yet again for blood. Shoesmith has been described by some as a scapegoat, and I believe she has been exactly that. I don't argue with those who say that as director she should have been held responsible, or even with those who think she should have resigned when the news of the child's death first broke. But it seems to me that Shoesmith has become the person we blame - the one on whom we thrust all our uncomfortable feelings about the children we fail, as a society, to protect. Of course, that was her job, at a managerial level. But it's also hard to say in any firm way how she personally failed Peter Connelly, even if the Ofsted report that triggered her sacking mentioned leadership and managerial failings within the department.
With Baby P's mother, of course, it's different. With Tracey Connelly we can say how she failed. We know she was drunk too much of the time and didn't stop her abusive partner from physically assaulting her child. But we can also write her off as someone who was probably doomed to such behaviour, as someone we don't expect more of, as someone, as one Guardian piece put it, "who made the worst of an abject start in life". However, these two figures do share something. They are both women, and when you look at the lists of names that over the years the tabloids have held responsible for the death of Baby P, it is astonishing how much focus there is on the women who failed him, rather than the men who assaulted him. From his social worker to the doctor who failed to spot his broken back, they are branded useless and shameless. As a society we seem able to process the idea of violent, sociopathic men, but we feel our deepest horror for the mother who fails to defend her child.
Back in 2011, after the Court of Appeal ruled that Shoesmith had been sacked unfairly from her job, she said she didn't "do blame" - either of herself or those who worked for her - and added, "you cannot stop the death of children". But, of course, we as a society do blame, and she, almost from the start, was selected as its object.
Last week, Ed Balls, who as the then children's minister sacked Shoesmith without warning on television - and is therefore partly to blame for this payout - was one of the many to damn her yet again, saying that the payout stuck in the craw. Balls was playing the popularity card, as he had done before, tuning into the mob feeling of the nation - which in this case was a strange mix of generalised outrage at highly-paid people getting big payouts, pay-offs and bonuses, in spite of their mistakes, and also our horror that, in this day and age, children are still dying like this and that someone must take the flak.
But it was not obvious that it should have been Shoesmith taking the flak. There were, after all, many potential layers of management and mismanagement. Why, for instance, did Ofsted, whose inspectors had awarded her department the maximum three-star "good practice" rating, not also have some neck on the block? What about the leader of Haringey Council?
And is it even necessarily the right thing, following a failure, to sack or remove a head of department? One of Shoesmith's few defenders has been social work expert Professor Ray Jones, who points to the fact that such demonising is damaging the field of social work and making it less attractive to prospective employees. The question should not be who gets the symbolic punishment, but how to save and protect the children.
Shoesmith is unlikely to win the public over. After all, her big error was not just to preside over the services that failed to spot Baby P's abuse and identify the danger he was in, it was also to not have echoed the wider feelings of the nation.
In an early interview, she talked inappropriately about the department's three-star Ofsted rating, rather than simply expressing horror at the child's death. That was a failure of empathy. And those who fail there can only expect the worst punishment. Shoesmith came across as a bureaucrat, insensitive to the appalling death of a child, and only interested in her own career. And she has been marked out as that ever since, no matter what she has said.
It is a sad indictment of our times. The Baby P case has been more of a lesson in how important it is to make the right sounds of horror and display the correct emotions than it has in finding a way to protect the most vulnerable children.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.