Review calls for review of child protection services in England after two deaths | Child protection

Child protection services in England are facing a stir after an independent assessment of security flaws that led to the murder of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and toddler Star Hobson.

The central proposal of the review is the creation of specialized child protection teams, including social workers, mental health professionals, police officers, pediatricians and child psychologists to monitor cases where children are at serious risk of injury.

The report outlines the circumstances of what it calls the “unimaginably horrific deaths” of Arthur and Star and highlights some of the opportunities child protection teams missed to save the children. There were multiple warnings from wider family members that the children were in danger.

In both cases, serious shortcomings in local child protection practices reflected broader national weaknesses, the report said. Security was too often ineffective and there was a lack of experience to make complex and risky decisions, it says, requiring a strengthening of local and national security regulations.

“We feel there is too much inconsistency and ambiguity in child protection practice in England. This is not good for children, their families or practitioners,” said the chair of the Child Protection Assessment Panel, Annie Hudson, who conducted the assessment.

While she said this didn’t mean the system was “broken” — many thousands of children are protected from harm every day by conscientious, dedicated and capable professionals — Hudson said current arrangements “were not consistently supportive or advanced enough to support the very good practice”.

Child protection work is inherently complex and complicated and should be led by multi-agency child protection units, the report said. Too often inexperienced professionals – especially social workers – are asked to do this work without adequate supervision and support. “This is not fair to the social workers or the children they serve,” it says.

The proposed new teams would be based in the municipality’s children’s wards, would conduct formal investigations into local children at risk of harm, and chair conferences on child protection cases. Professionals from various agencies would be seconded to the units.

Education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, welcomed the assessment and promised to publish a “bold implementation plan” later this year to put his recommendations into action. “We shouldn’t waste time learning from the findings of this review — enough is enough,” he said.

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was assaulted, tortured and beaten to death by his stepmother, Emma Tustin, of Solihull, in June 2020, during the first Covid lockdown. In December, Tustin was sentenced to 29 years in prison, while Arthur’s father, Thomas Hughes, was sentenced to 21 years for manslaughter.

Star Hobson, was 16 months old when she was beaten to death by her mother’s partner in September 2020 after months of abuse. In December, Savannah Brockhill, of Bradford, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder, while Star’s mother, Frankie Smith, was given eight years, later increased to 12, for causing or permitting the death of a child.

In both cases, social workers, police and other professionals missed opportunities to intervene. They failed to develop an understanding of what everyday life was like for Arthur and Star, or to vigorously share or interrogate and assess new information that came to light about them, the review found.

Arthur’s family has repeatedly raised concerns to police and social workers that he was beaten and mistreated, but their reports were not taken seriously, the report says. Security officials were too quick to accept Hughes’ explanation that his family members’ warnings were “harassment” against him and Tustin.

The warnings of Star’s relatives were similarly ignored, with professionals wrongly assuming that relatives were motivated by an aversion to Brockhill and Smith’s lesbian relationship. Professionals failed to “unpack biases and assumptions” that influenced their assessment of risk to Star, the review concluded.

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In Bradford, the quality of security was undermined by high staff turnover and a high workload, the study found. In 2020, social workers in the city monitored an average of 20 families each, compared to a national average of 16. Health visitors were underfunded and the number of records increased from 299 new mothers in 2018 to 479 in 2022

This contextual pressure made work with Star superficial and inadequate, the review said. “In 2020, Bradford’s child welfare service was a service in turmoil, where professionals worked in conditions that made high-quality decision making very difficult.”

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