Does another review of more tragic deaths of vulnerable children provide the answers needed to protect children from harm, asks Katharine Quarmby

A new report into the deaths of two children murdered by the partners of their parents makes for chilling reading. 

The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel examined the deaths of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and one-year-old Star Hobson.

Annie Hudson, who chaired the panel, spoke of the “horrific and ultimately fatal abuse” suffered by both children and how hard relatives had tried to raise the alarm about the conditions in which they were living. 

The review found that, far too often, family concerns were “disregarded”.

Social workers believed that the fears of Star Hobson’s family about her mother’s partner might be malicious, as she was in a same-sex relationship. This was encouraged by the partner herself, to manipulate attention away from the harm that she was causing. 

In the report, Hudson stresses that the system of child protection is not “broken” – although the review also emphasises that devious parents or carers can mislead. Such was clearly the case with both of these tragic deaths, which demonstrated how wider family networks are not always listened to and that some child protection professionals are not robust or rapid enough in their responses. 

These patterns, sadly, are nothing new.

They were also present in the unfolding events leading up to the death of Baby P, Peter Connelly; and the murder of Victoria Climbie. 

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Hudson takes pains to say that the many children who are adequately protected do not come to public knowledge.

However, the report does recommend strengthening child protection with new multi-agency child protection units – teams that would bring social workers into closer working with the police and other agencies. 


A Reset

The review comes hot off the heels of the Children’s Social Care Review, which found that the wider social care system for children was “faltering”. It argued that there is too much emphasis on crisis intervention, rather than earlier support. 

It did, however, stop short of what many in the sector had feared: that child protection could be split from wider work supporting families. In many ways that was the dog that didn’t bark. 

So is this second review likely to end in a policy move that does effectively split social work in two – and is that a good idea? 

Whatever changes there are will not come too hastily.

The Chief Social Worker, Isobel Trowler, has written to social work teams just this week to say that the recommendations of both reviews will need to be carefully considered and that she will be listening to social workers to consider the “important opportunity to share a new future for children’s social care”. But the fear remains that separation is on the table. 

These fears cluster around three main issues.

International evidence suggests that the separation is far from beneficial and may lead to more unsubstantiated cases being referred (with research about the flaws in the model in Australia). It would potentially stigmatise those seeking help when they need it most. And it disconnects protection from support.

Critics have pointed to the similar splitting of functions – and part-privatisation – of the probation system in 2014, which was later discredited and reorganised six years later. 

June Thoburn, Emeritus Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of East Anglia, says that splitting child protection away from social work in this kind of arrangement just “doesn’t work”. This is partly because it is hugely difficult to establish which family is “potentially very damaging”. Most families in crisis, she explains, move in and out of risk levels. 

Children’s Care Cannot Be Reformed Without Recognising the Impact of Poverty and Austerity

Katharine Quarmby and Sian Norris

Short-Staffed

The biggest issue in the sector is the shortage of social workers, which is currently at a five-year high.

Prof Thoburn points out that fewer and fewer referrals to child protection are from family members, partly due to fear and stigma that children will be removed or even adopted, so that wider families will lose contact with loved ones.

Splitting social workers into child protection professionals and children and family specialists would enhance that stigma, she argues, rather than reduce it. This could mean families feeling less able to ask for early support, before a problem becomes a crisis. 

Jane Collins, who runs a not-for-profit fostering agency, remembers her own hesitation about asking for help when her family fell on hard times. 

“I had a breakdown before finally asking for help…with the support of social workers I successfully rebuilt my life and my children thrived in a single parent family,” she told Byline Times. Stigmatising family support, she fears, will encourage what she calls “disguised compliance if there’s something to hide – and, conversely, fear and distress to those genuinely seeking help”.

The Care Review Watch Alliance –  a coalition of interested individuals and experts involved in the social work sector – welcomed the report and the focus in it on child protection. But it stressed that disconnecting “family help from child protection” carries the risk of creating a “new breed of child protection social workers reduced to technicians and investigators”. This could cause even more of an exodus from a profession currently reeling from reams of advice but not enough funding to prop it up.

Prof Thoburn stresses that early career social workers should not be given highly complex cases – as those of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes obviously were. But when the system is in crisis, with a shortage of experienced social workers, it is hardly surprising that costly mistakes carrying the risk of tragedy are made.

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