Every detail of the life and death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes is heartbreaking: the scheming nature of the torture he suffered; the speed at which his childhood turned into an unimaginable hell; the digital documentation of the abuse; how he was singled out from the other children in his household for this treatment; that his relatives tried to get help. And the social workers who visited, despite the lockdown, but still walked away.
It’s tempting to hide from those details; or to get angry and react too quickly without thought of the consequences. We saw that after Peter Connelly was killed in Haringey in 2007 when more children were subsequently taken into care. The government has ordered a review and on Tuesday the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi told the Commons that children should be removed from their families if there is an “inkling”, “iota” or “scintilla of doubt” about the harm they face.
His comments go beyond the current law, which says there has to be evidence that a child is suffering, or likely to suffer, “serious harm” to meet the threshold for removal. It represents a seismic shift in child protection policy.
Too often the debate about how to protect children is reduced to a deceptive binary, pitching people who believe that the state intervenes too readily to break up families against those who believe we abandon children in terrible homes. As Sonia Sodha put it in the Observer on Sunday: “Sentiment swings wildly between ‘more must be done’ and emotive newspaper campaigns against over-interventionist services.”
I have spent three years listening to children, parents, social workers and legal professionals to understand this, initially for Tortoise before my reporting grew into a forthcoming book. I have seen evidence to support both arguments.
I heard stories that support the idea that the state is too interventionist: the parents whose children were removed on slim evidence, or before they had a meaningful chance to improve. I was told by a social worker that they have no resources to support families, so deal with uncertainty through the reassuring processes of court procedures. Mr Justice Keehan, a high court judge in the family division, told me that up to a third of cases in court might be avoided if social workers were able to provide better support to those families. To extrapolate that’s about 27,000 children in the care system, perhaps unnecessarily.
But I also met the teacher, driving door-to-door in lockdown to spot signs of abuse, who warned that thresholds for intervention are now so high that schools are taking on the basic work of social work without the funding. I met the mother who knows she failed her children, and now wishes she had had a chance in care when she was a child so that she might have learned how to look after them. Foster carers told me about the appalling and long-term mistreatment of the children who arrive to live with them. I met a 12-year-old girl in foster care who told me that life was “as normal as it could be” – that was the highest achievement in her eyes. And now we know the horror of Arthur’s life and death.
Last year there were over 80,000 children in the care system, more cumulatively than since current records began in the early 1990s. But 56 children, including Arthur, were killed by abusive relatives, suggesting there are still serious failings. Both sides of this debate are right. We have a system that is removing too many children as well as leaving children at risk in horrible homes. Both these things are true because we are not equipping our children’s social care system to do their job well. It is a breathtaking double failure of our state.
There is a risk that the government’s reaction to Arthur’s horrific death will focus on the rarer cases of deadly child abuse, neglecting the full spectrum of problems in the system.
But the increasing numbers of children in care in recent years have not been fuelled by a rise in sadistic or violent abuse of the kind that Arthur suffered. It’s about neglect and emotional abuse. The forces fuelling social workers’ increasing caseloads are not about the incomprehensible evil of child abuse, but about the failures in the fabric of our society.
For instance, poverty is the number one indicator of a care intervention and the rates of children in care vary dramatically across the country. Children in Blackpool, one of the poorest areas of the country, are eight times more likely to be removed than children in wealthy Richmond. Another driver is the mental health crisis, a systemic problem we’re facing as a society. A third is isolation – a hidden factor in so many cases where social services becomes more involved – and that comes from the weakening of our social bonds.
A system that in our minds is so often about the terrible deaths of children like Arthur, needs also to be able to provide support for the families lost in a brutal society. We need a social care system that is capable of both identifying dangerous abuse and of supporting families. That means investment in universal services that provide the early help many families need and investment in social work, to provide the tools, time and training social workers need to support families and make the difficult judgements of what constitutes abuse. The costs needed to invest in the system are not prohibitive once you consider the overall cost of children in care, let alone the unquantifiable cost of a child’s death.
It might also mean structural change for the profession: at the moment social workers are expected to provide support to families who are struggling, but they are the same people who investigate families and then go to court and give evidence for the removal of their children. It’s like one professional doing public health then being a nurse practitioner, GP, A&E medic and surgeon all at once. Separating out family support work from child protection work would make sense. And we need accountability systems that reward social work that supports families to improve, as well as avoids death and serious harm.
The system, despite the commitment of the heroic social workers, is not working. We must do everything within our powers to stop another child from being killed. But we also need to cure the wider problems that families face: poverty and the weaknesses in our society. We have to do things differently. We have to give social workers the chance to do the hardest of jobs better.
Polly Curtis is a former editor at Tortoise. Her book Behind Closed Doors – Why We Break Up Families – And How to Mend Them, will be published in February 2022.