The pattern of violence in child abuse appears to be led in most cases by the non-blood relation. | Archives


With two murder trials within a week in which it emerged that children of six and 18 months were brutally killed by people who had parental care, it was inevitable that the role of social workers would be investigated. In both cases, but especially with Star Hobson in Yorkshire, the social services were given warnings that the children were being abused.

Already Bradford City Council, which was previously condemned by Ofsted for incompetence, has had its responsibility for child protection taken away. In the case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in the Midlands, the government has called for a national investigation.

The trouble with these investigations, back to the notorious case of Victoria Climbie in 2003 and Baby P six years later, is that they inevitably focus on any failings by social workers, who are an easy target for the press. In one case review David Cameron tried to make social workers personally culpable if a child dies, which was outrageous. As well make him culpable for failing to provide social workers with manageable case-loads.

My elder son is a social worker. After two decades in the wine trade he chose to go back to university to take a degree in social work and is now engaged in child protection. As a result, I have acquired a new perspective on some of the issues involved.

Did you know, for example, that social workers do not have the power to take a child from a family for its own protection? Only two agencies are allowed to do this: the courts and the police.

In order to get a protection order, the court would need to be convinced by a child protection doctor, who has to act on the evidence provided to him, either by examining the child (which didn’t happen in either of the recent cases) or by studying photographs taken by relatives, which might be inconclusive.

In some cases the doctor is not prepared to see the child, even though a social worker may strongly recommend it, if he thinks an injury may have been accidental. In some cases, too, a social worker can be hoodwinked by the harming adults, who can be convincing liars. The children, too, are taught to lie to officials. They will even cover for the parents who are harming them.

I am always puzzled that neighbours don’t come forward more often. Walls are thin enough for a child’s screams to be heard. Even if they did, however, their suspicions would not be enough for the child to be taken away for protection.

It is so difficult, bureaucratically, to remove a child, one wonders if there couldn’t be a half-way stage where a child is taken into provisional care if police and social workers have grounds for suspicion but not firm evidence. In the Arthur case, for example, the father and stand-in stepmother had taken videos of the boy in various stages of distress. If these could have been found in a police search while the boy was alive, he might still be alive today.

In both the recent cases lockdown was a central factor – both in forcing people to stay secluded together when tensions were already high and stress levels bound to rise, and in hampering the movements of social workers or others seeking to help the children. In the Arthur case a relative wanted to go and see his nephew for himself, because he was worried, but he was warned by police that if he did so he would be breaking Covid restrictions

The pattern of violence in child abuse appears to be led in most cases by the non-blood relation – a stepfather living with the birth mother or, as in the Star case, an aggressive lesbian boxer who evidently cowed the mother into compliance. In such cases the child becomes an irrelevance in the parent’s new relationship or the newcomer is jealous of the parent’s links to the child and seeks to break them.

Social services are also hampered in their detective work by data protection law, which means that safeguarding information, when it is acquired, cannot be shared among different departments. So there is no national or even local computer system for child abuse. Could this be why, in the Arthur case, no one seemed to register that the killer, Emma Tusten, had already had two children taken away, and couldn’t find out why?.
In 2009 Lord Laming found that four separate social service agencies were involved in a case of child protection, but there was no communication between them and safeguarding the child was not given the highest priority.

It should be accepted that social workers set out to protect children, not to avoid evidence of abuse. None of them knowingly leaves a child to die. There are 50,000 child protection cases in Britain every year and in many of them the life of a potential Arthur or Star is saved. The press know nothing of these cases where social workers have saved children’s lives or at least saved then from physical abuse.

Yet the result of every review of a child’s needless death is to pack the blame onto the social services; but without more resources and case-loads that front-line social workers can cope with, no improvement is going to be possible.

A friend became involved with social services in the UK in an effort to prevent a grand-child being taken into care – not for physical abuse, but because both parents were drug-takers. Every case worker was caring and conscientious, but almost every time she saw a different one, because they were working only-part-time or had quit because the load was simply too heavy to bear.

Many local councils have fought hard to maintain the budgets for children’s services while suffering serious cuts elsewhere. But standing still is not an option when the demand for child protection has grown exponentially in recent years.

Rather than trying to pin the blame on social workers, the media should be pressing for more resources to be made available to them, to ensure that the front-line workers are not so over-stretched that they can concentrate on those children at most serious risk.

The press too often blame social workers without any real knowledge of what they do and the restraints under which they work. They should be given a much fairer hearing, not just for their own sakes, but to help save children’s lives in the future.

Can Boris survive?

Friends keep asking me if Boris deserves to survive. The answer is: Probably not. But will he survive in the short term? Probably yes. I think the 100 or so Tory MPs who voted against his new Covid restrictions will look silly and irresponsible if the Omicron variant proves as dangerous as the doctors fear. Johnson had firm medical backing for his new rules. But for the first time I am beginning to doubt if he will be the Tory leader at the next general election.