Social workers have had to leave their homes because of abuse and threats following the trial of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’s killers, a council boss has said.
Nick Page, chief executive of Solihull Council, said the murder of the six-year-old in June 2020 had “devastated” the community.
He was responding to the publication of a national review by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, commissioned in December 2021 after the deaths of Arthur and also 16-month-old Star Hobson, to look at what could be done to prevent things from going so “horrifyingly wrong” in future.
Arthur was murdered by his stepmother, Emma Tustin, at their home in Solihull.
She was jailed for life with a minimum term of 29 years at Coventry Crown Court in December last year. Arthur’s father, Thomas Hughes, 29, was jailed for 29 years after being found guilty of manslaughter.
Star was murdered by her mother’s girlfriend, Savannah Brockhill, at her home in Keighley, West Yorkshire, in September 2020. Star’s mother, Frankie Smith, 20, was found guilty of causing or allowing the youngster’s death.
The review found the fatal abuses suffered by the children “are not isolated incidents”, but reflective of wider problems with poor information sharing and weak decision-making.
Concerns raised by their wider family members were “too often” disregarded and not properly investigated, the review said.
It found that professionals were increasingly kept at arm’s length by those perpetrating the abuse, and they failed to identify a “pattern of parental disengagement and avoidant behaviour”.
In a video statement responding to the review, Mr Page said: “What I’m clear about is that social work, being a social worker, is one of the most caring, yet hardest vocations to do.
“I’m proud – I’m proud that we’ve got expert, dedicated and caring people working with us here.
“But I’ve been concerned over the last six months, because the level of abuse and even threats towards them has meant that some have even had to leave their own homes, with their families, with their children, and with their partners. This can’t be right.
“My considered view is this: now is not the time for blame, but it is most definitely the time for learning and sorting.
“Also, we need to think long and hard about how we support those and help those children and young people live happy and safe lives, how we get better at looking after children.”
The panel interviewed just under 80 professionals in Bradford, Birmingham and Solihull; the children’s family members, including Star’s mother and her mother’s partner; and drew on 1,500 rapid reviews of serious incidents since it was formed.
The way child protection is approached in England needs to “change fundamentally”, it said.
It recommends dedicated multi-agency teams staffed by experienced child protection professionals including police, healthcare staff and social workers be set up in every local authority area to investigate allegations of serious harm to children.
The Government should establish a national child protection board to better co-ordinate child protection policy, the report said.
In a foreword to the report, review chairwoman Annie Hudson said the current safeguarding system is not broken, but there is too much ambiguity and inconsistency which does not serve children, their families or professionals well.
Her review noted the importance of challenging assumptions and biases relating to culture, ethnicity, gender and sexuality when safeguarding children.
It said the role of women in perpetrating abuse may have impacted on how professionals perceived the risk to children, “given societal beliefs about women as caregivers”.
The review said a judgment seemingly became fixed early on that Hughes was a “protective father” to Arthur, which was reasonable at the time but was never challenged when circumstances changed.
Concerns about Arthur’s bruising raised by family members were not taken seriously, photographs of the bruising were not shared between agencies, his voice was not always heard and too many assessments relied on his father’s perspective, it found.
In Star’s case, an explanation that concern from a family member might have been malicious and rooted in a dislike of her mother’s same-sex relationship was “too easily accepted”, the review found.
The review found that Bradford children’s social care service was “in turmoil” in 2020, with a high turnover of social workers and a large volume of work affecting quality and contributing to assessments that were “too superficial” and did not address repeated concerns from family members.
Ms Hudson told the PA news agency there are “fundamental faultlines” in the system that need to be addressed.
She said: “We’re really clear in our report that the issues that we saw there are also issues that we’ve seen in other instances, and that we believe that the way the system is set up, and the conditions in which practitioners are having to work and make decisions, actually makes it very difficult sometimes for them to really know what was going on and to really work together effectively to protect children.”
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi thanked Arthur and Star’s families for their contributions to the report, and said: “We must waste no time learning from the findings of this review – enough is enough.”
He pledged to set up a new child protection ministerial group, with a bold plan later this year to bring about a “fundamental shift”.
Janice Hawkes, independent chairwoman of the Bradford Partnership, apologised for the “awful circumstances” of Star’s death, and said the partnership is “entirely committed to improving the safety of children across Bradford”.