Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and our broken child protection system

5 December 2021

6:00 PM

5 December 2021

6:00 PM

The official sentencing remarks on the short life and cruel death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes begin with this trigger warning from the judge: ‘This is one of the most distressing and disturbing cases with which I have had to deal.’

This week Emma Tustin was sentenced to life with a minimum term of 29 years for the murder of her stepson Arthur last year. Thomas Hughes, her partner and Arthur’s father, was sentenced to 21 years after being found guilty of manslaughter. Both were also convicted on several charges of child cruelty. In his sentencing remarks the judge described their behaviour as ‘cruel and inhuman’. And no wonder.

In the space of just three months, this poor little six-year-old boy acquired 130 bruises, a number described by the paediatrician who tried to save him as ‘staggering.’

Mr Justice Wall’s description of his battered body and the psychological horror that transformed a once happy boy into a terrified plaything for morally voided monsters would challenge any belief in God above:

‘He was emaciated. His ribs were visible under his skin… He had been poisoned with so much salt that the levels of sodium in his blood could not be accurately and reliably measured by properly calibrated hospital equipment.’

Apart from the grotesque inhuman cruelty, the reason such cases of abuse and killing by parents or guardians – such as Baby Peter and Victoria Climbié – stay in the mind is because we have a relatively low rate of child homicide in this country. In a world where extreme behaviour has become almost banal, we can still be silenced by the video of a doomed child weeping and crying that nobody loves him.

But there is a great danger in dismissing the people who torture and kill children as aberrations. In a civilised country we cannot endure an unofficial culture that regards these heinous acts as ‘how we are now.’

As with all of these fatal child protection failures a local safeguarding review will now be commissioned. It is likely that it will speak of ‘lessons learned’ and there will be another weary attempt to understand how agents of the state – the school and social services – were involved but then did not take action as Arthur was isolated, poisoned and tortured to death.

The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel with national oversight is independent and rigorous but there is little it can do about some of the systemic and cultural problems that mean that there will inevitably be another child who suffers a similar fate to Arthur Labinjo-Hughes.

Last year there were over 6,000 vacancies nationwide in child and family social work. Many more staffing gaps are plugged by temporary agency staff. Turnover is high. The workforce is getting less experienced as burned-out practitioners leave a difficult and demanding profession to do a job that won’t haunt their nightmares every night.

New social workers are marinated in training and theory that obsesses over diversity and inclusion while hard-nosed colleagues that could root out and challenge child abuse are edged out by a family court system that places too much priority on keeping families together over other considerations.

It is very likely that deception was used by Arthur’s killers to present themselves as a happy family and to manipulate the professionals who were trying to find out if he was safe. The court was told that Arthur’s grandmother contacted Solihull council about his welfare but the council found that there were ‘no safeguarding concerns’ after visiting his home two months before the boy was killed. They will have to live with the result of this tragic case.

The problem though is wider. All too often manipulative predators are able to deceive practitioners and the wider system because of a mix of professional naivety, institutional timidity and poor training. Often the system seems to prioritise the reforming of individuals over the safety of the innocent. This flawed and often fatal approach to risk management doesn’t stop with infanticide. James Treadwell, one of the few criminologists who the government should really be paying attention to, sums it up when he says:

‘The dominant liberal ideology has become more and more concerned with people’s ability to change as if it’s a given and common. That faith isn’t reality. There is promotion of a naive ideology of kindness over realities, and way too much focus on individual rights.’

Correcting this problem will take more than a serious case review. It is entrenched, well-heeled, absolutely self-righteous and resistant to change. I know the government is aware of this dangerous ideological drift – it must now take national action to reverse it.

The poor, broken life of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes deserves more than yet another review with hollow promises that will just gather dust on a shelf.

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