‘In YOU We Trust!’: Protecting Children and their Rights.
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t stopped thinking about the tragic and brutal death of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in June last year, at a time when we are all emerging from the fierce grips of lockdown. I recall how the news story offered some sparse detail on the circumstances of Arthur’s murder, and how the event signalled a focus on the culpability of his father Thomas Hughes and his partner Emma Tustin. Since their recent sentencing, the media has furnished us with more of the details of the cruelty and abuse Arthur suffered at the hands of Tustin and Hughes. Some of which I could scarcely bear to read, watch or hear. The pain and suffering this child endured is captured in one of the few recordings we know of the sound of Arthur’s voice as he cried hours before he died, “No-one loves me”, and “no-one’s going to feed me.” Mr. Justice Wall in passing sentence on both abusers said “This is without doubt one of the most distressing and disturbing cases with which I have had to deal with.”
Not surprisingly, the death of a child in cases of abuse and neglect gives way to a furore by the public and the media, borne out by the emotional politics of who is or, should be held to account for child protection agencies’ and professionals’ [possible] oversights. Already, in the case of Arthur, a storm is brewing as there are calls for inquiries, reviews and questions on the accountability of those professionals who were involved in safeguarding him. The Justice Secretary Dominic Rabb has announced an intention to raise the sentences for child cruelty as there is a view that Tustin’s and Hughes’ sentences are too lenient. There is to be an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct on the West Midlands police officers involved with Arthur’s story. The Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi is reported as saying “We will not rest until we have the answers we need.” Similarly, an inquiry has been launched into Solihull’s local children’s services who apparently declared that there were ‘no safeguarding concerns’ about Arthur. Typically, or more often than not, my observations are that social workers are more likely to be in the firing line of accusations and blame. Some of the national press have released the name of a social worker involved in Arthur’s case, and I understand that she has since been vilified and threatened with all types of abuse and threats on social media. This type of thoughtless journalism does nothing to enable a culture of open inquiry and to prevent the witch-hunt approach which is fired up by a culture of blame.
However, my attention also turns to those involved in Arthur’s life who were not professionals but were members of his family, acquaintances, family friends or neighbours. These were people who had caught sight of and heard the distress of this little boy in the four-month period of his terrible abuse and neglect leading up to his death. I am interested in the reports of the child’s grandmothers, his uncle, Tustin’s hairdresser and her husband, Tustin’s stepfather, all of whom reported their concerns, warnings and photographic evidence of the violence that Arthur suffered by Tustin and Hughes. I am very aware that taking the steps to report a child protection concern is daunting and anxiety provoking, for most members of the public. But these steps are necessary in protecting the rights of the child, to advocate for their needs, especially when they are vulnerable and in need of our protection. I talk to my students about dispositions of advocacy for those in need, who are less visible or who are powerless in child protection practice. It takes courage and conviction within every one of us, to say and do the right thing in speaking up for and on behalf of children. These individuals, as non-professionals, reported their concerns about Arthur and in doing so, perhaps believed that this was enough to protect him. But sometimes we do have to keep banging and pushing against the door, to be absolutely sure that we are heard and that our concerns will be responded to and taken seriously. The same goes for professionals in their advocacy for children, the need to push against bureaucracy and hierarchies means that sometimes we might court disfavour or may be regarded as being problematic or ‘difficult’. In Arthur’s case, we may hear some familiar issues in terms of lessons to be learned to prevent such tragedy again. These will likely unfold as issues of poor communications between professionals, burgeoning caseloads of social workers, inadequate supervision, a lack of professional curiosity in Arthur’s home circumstances, or the rule of optimism. The latter having grave implications where professionals are willing to believe the accounts of parents and carers about their children, without question, and being unwilling to think the unthinkable about what risk or harm a child may be facing.
Our child protection legislation and systems are revered worldwide, my time as Chair of the AoCPP (previously known as BASPCAN), gave much evidence of this in working with world renowned child protection expert practitioners and researchers. Yet, we have no room for complacency, we know this. I am not convinced that we need another review of our child protection systems, what we do need is more trained child protection social workers, who have smaller caseloads and time to actually think, reflect and discuss the children in their radar. We need more robust training for all teachers on safeguarding on child protection, and the same for all police officers. I am especially anxious to see more creative public health approaches in educating our public about their safeguarding duties in protecting the children who trust them, rely upon them and need them to advocate for them. To keep banging and pushing on the door to ensure that their concerns about vulnerable children are heard.
Finally, as I write I am conscious of the fact that we are in the days approaching Christmas and I suppose my thoughts are about how I exit my Blog on a lighter note? It is difficult given the nature of what I have shared with you in terms of my thoughts. But I remember the story of 8 year-year-old Virginia O’ Hanlon who wrote to the Editor of The New York Sun in 1897, as she was very troubled because one of her friends told her that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. The Editor kindly responded in a most beautiful and caring way. What follows is an extract of his letter, he wrote ‘Yes, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist… How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be a world as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.’
There is a part of me that wishes that such kindness and thoughtfulness as seen in the exchange of this old letter from adult to child, could have been extended to Arthur in the months from March to June of last year. Perhaps, this may have been a very different story.
Claire Richards is the Course Leader for the MA Understanding Domestic and Sexual Violence at the University of Worcester, please see further: