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The inquiries into the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson have brought about a series of discussions surrounding the effectiveness of the social services, and how they can learn from such cases for the future. 

The two cases of Arthur and Star were not unknown to the social services, with three referrals being made for Arthur, and over five referrals being made for Star. These, however, amounted to the cases being closed, with justifications being that they live in a “happy household”. In the meantime, both Arthur and Star were put through brutality and psychologically damaging punishments. Arthur was frequently made to stand in the hallway for up to 14 hours, with fear of punishment if he attempted to sit down, whilst Star was made to stand in the corner of a room, even when she had a fractured leg. The status of “happy household”, in these cases, was determined by a clean and tidy home followed by excuses made by the parents, with little interactions with the child at hand. 

Later, detectives found that Arthur did not have an adequate bed to sleep in, with a duvet being found under the stairs. It was later revealed that Arthur was sleeping on the living room floor. This should be an aspect that social workers check for, to ensure that the general wellbeing of the child is looked after. Whilst some may say that this could reflect poverty, it could ring alarm bells when seen in the context of cases where multiple referrals have been made. 

Both cases have also shown that there was poor professional judgement when it came to investigating potential bruising on the children. Arthur was subjected to multiple bruises, with camera footage showing unusual bruising on his shoulder, something doctors have quickly picked up on as being the result of an adult’s hand. Meanwhile, Star’s grandfather took photographic footage of Star’s face, showing a large bruise. When it came to social services investigating, however, they either did not look thoroughly enough or carelessly believed the lies that were fed to them from the parents. 

Social workers, particularly in cases where there has been material evidence, should carry out a thorough inspection into potential bruises on a child’s body. In cases where there is unusual bruising, they should have the power to immediately refer the case to a specialised police unit, to prevent further injury or in worst cases, death.

Adding to this point, social workers should have a duty to talk to the child at hand. Currently, social workers either fail to speak to the child, or they must ask permission from the parents to do so. In the latter case, parents may stay in the room and subject the child to psychological abuse through glares, or threat of punishment. In all cases of referrals, social workers should have the power to talk to the child alone to understand their thoughts and feelings. 

This could be paired with stronger education within schooling systems. When children have been subjected to abuse through a lot of their life, they will not know anything different, and may not be able to understand that what their carers are doing is wrong. The government’s current personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education programme does not cover teaching on parental abuse or the social services. Education should start within early years, teaching children to understand that physical abuse from caregivers is wrong, to higher education, where teaching could include psychological and mental abuse. As a result, children will be better able to flag their abuse, and social workers will be able to get a better understanding of the situation through direct communication with the child.

Finally, the police and social services need to work more closely. This approach was recently adopted in Bethlehem, where a pilot programme integrated social workers into the city’s police department. However, in the UK, there seems to be a ‘pass the baton’ approach whereby social workers do the investigating and then pass on the case to the police, who have the power to remove the child from a dangerous household. 

Whilst it may not be feasible to train social workers to give them the understanding and power to be able to remove children from a household, it is feasible – as shown in Bethlehem – to create a division within the police that works closely with social workers. This division would have access to the information that social workers have and be on standby to remove a child from a household. The result of this would be a more efficient process of removing children from a dangerous household through limiting the delays which may occur through the ‘pass the baton’ approach. It will ensure that children are protected as soon as possible, potentially preventing further incidences.

The case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson were truly tragic. The delay in decisive action meant that social services were incapable of giving them the protection that they needed. A new and improved system of care needs to be enforced whereby social workers have the power to check for general well-being like an adequate bed to sleep in, alongside the power to individually talk to the child and search for unusual bruising. This, in conjunction with a better force of removal, through a joint team in the police, will enhance the protection of young people before it is too late. 

Sophie is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image:]