Social distancing and school closures may have played a part, but other factors were at play
Harry Ferguson is professor of social work at the University of Birmingham
The manner of the death of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes at the hands of his father and stepmother, now convicted of manslaughter and murder respectively, is shocking. The evidence heard in court was some of the most tragic I’ve seen and heard in a social work career lasting more than 40 years. This was echoed by the judge who said: “[Arthur] was subjected to the most unimaginable suffering at the hands of both of you … Your behaviour towards him was often spiteful and at times sadistic.”
Little wonder serious questions are being asked about how this was allowed to happen. Evidence appears to show that family members reported at least some of their concerns about Arthur to social workers and the police, including sending photos of bruises on his body. It was reported that social workers concluded there were “no safeguarding concerns”. A review of the role of children’s social work services is under way and an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct is expected to report soon.
How might we begin to make sense of how professionals missed what appears to us now with hindsight as obvious signs of dreadful child abuse? Media reports are placing a great deal of emphasis on the fact that Arthur and his father moved into the home of his stepmother at the start of the first Covid lockdown in March 2020. As soon as April, the wider family had reported suspected abuse and social workers had visited.
I am part of a research team that examined the impact of Covid and social distancing measures on the capacity of social workers to keep children safe and help families during the first nine months of the pandemic. On the basis of our findings it seems likely that Arthur was in part let down due to the restrictions of social distancing and school closures.
Social workers were directed by national and local government to minimise where possible having to go into family homes by seeing children and parents on doorsteps, in their gardens, or through video calls. It was very clear, though, that where serious child abuse was suspected, seeing children inside their homes was essential.
Social workers were advised to wear PPE – especially face masks – and maintain a two-metre distance from children and parents. When adequate, and sometimes any, PPE was unavailable, we found that social workers consistently took significant personal risks to try to protect children.
In the nine months we spoke to social workers, we consistently found that social distancing didn’t happen, not least because children often initiated physical contact with the worker. Invariably, social workers responded by providing the play, physical touch and nurture the children were reaching out for. But still, it is very important that inquiries take the effects of poor resourcing and the wider impact of austerity into account when looking into how social workers interacted with Arthur.
Careful analysis of the actual bodily, interpersonal dynamics between Arthur and professionals will be crucial. Did social workers, the police and doctors see bruises? Was the child medically examined? It is important to stress that such routine child protection work did go on during lockdowns and our data shows that many children and families were kept safe and helped.
That said, it was clear from our data that child protection workers did not have the same capacity and freedom to get close to children and to find out what their lives are like in the ways they could pre-pandemic. Two factors were crucial to this.
First, especially during the initial lockdown, social workers were often the only professionals visiting children and going into family homes on a regular basis. Health visitors, early help and therapeutic services that normally support young children and parents retreated from homes and either went online or stopped altogether. Many schools made tremendous efforts to stay in touch with vulnerable children, doing telephone and doorstep visits, and the police visited in emergency situations, but the net result was that social workers often ended up being the sole agency going into homes.
Just one in 10 parents of children in the UK aged under two saw a health visitor face-to-face during the first lockdown. This retreat of services for at-risk children was a major error and should never be allowed to happen again. What abused children like Arthur need are safe spaces to talk about their lives and for as many professionals as possible to have access to them.
In some high-risk cases in our study, social workers were able to make arrangements to see children in schools but this was wholly dependent upon parents allowing it. Lockdown made it possible for Arthur’s parents to legitimately keep him off school and torture him at will. Social workers often shared their fears with us that some parents were using the risk of Covid infection as an excuse to deny them the right to visit.
Which brings us to a final hugely influential factor: the parents and their emotional impact. It is clear that they were frighteningly strategic in their abuse of Arthur and no doubt in concealing it. It has become commonplace for inquiries into such cases to conclude that social workers and others lack “professional curiosity” and miss the obvious because they are too “optimistic”; that the “rule of optimism” results in professionals naively and hopefully believing what parents tell them, and denying what is in front of them.
My years of practice and research into child protection social work suggests that far from being optimistic, when faced with such aggressive and manipulative parents, social workers’ states of mind are often closer to helplessness. They are outmanoeuvred and overcome by the suffering and sadness in the atmosphere of such homes and in the children’s lives.
It’s a very painful truth that when faced with the helplessness of children, social workers and other professionals can become helpless because they find the children’s suffering unbearable and the organisational support is not available to help them recognise the impact of fear and anxiety and their distorted thinking. It is difficult for us to even think of what Arthur went through, but think the unthinkable we must, and build a child protection system that supports social workers emotionally and practically to do just that.
News reports and social media suggest that the appalling abuse Arthur suffered and the fact that opportunities to protect him were missed are already feeding a public desire to find professionals, usually social workers, to blame. Child protection work has always been difficult, but Covid, social distancing and the personal risks social workers routinely had to take to see children in their homes increased the complexity still further. The more that is taken into account – along with the emotional demands and funding deficits and systemic problems that mean social workers are faced with obstacles that make their job much more difficult than it needs to be – the more can be learned from Arthur’s tragic death.
Harry Ferguson is professor of social work at the University of Birmingham. More information on the UKRI- and ESRC-funded study on the impact of Covid-19 on social work and child protection is available here