Bruising to Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’ back was “ignored” by social services, the chair of the Government’s safeguarding review has told MPs.
Caroline Johnson, a Conservative MP on the Commons’ Education Select Committee and a consultant paediatrician, asked why nobody had investigated bruises to Arthur’s back, as bruises on the back were “much more significant” than on the shins and legs, which can be as a result of play.
These were not investigated by the social worker who had seen them, with no follow-up child protection medical.
Dr Johnson said there was also a discrepancy between the social worker’s report of the bruising on Arthur’s back as a “bit of faded bruising” and photographs of his extensive injuries.
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 21 years after being found guilty of manslaughter.
Sixteen-month-old Star Hobson 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.
Annie Hudson, chair of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, told a committee hearing on Children’s Services and the murders of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes that to say Arthur’s bruises were “ignored” rather than missed by social services was a “very fair and appropriate way of describing it”.
The review, published in May, found the fatal abuses suffered by the children “are not isolated incidents” and that concerns raised by family members were disregarded too often.
Evidence of bruising was shared at different times with different agencies and the involvement of specialist doctors in assessing his injuries “absolutely didn’t happen and that was a singular failure without any question”, Ms Hudson said.
Ms Hudson also said there was “too much inconsistency” in the quality of decision-making over child protection cases within the system.
Committee chair Robert Halfon said that due to “poor staffing and lack of oversight, pivotal moments to save Arthur and Star were missed”, adding that Arthur’s school had tried to refer him to mental health support three times.
“These children became invisible to the professionals who could have stepped in at crucial moments to save them,” he said.
Ms Hudson said that there were “critical opportunities” where concerns about bruising and injury surfaced.
She added that family concerns about both Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson were “not listened to, not followed up and just generally disregarded” and that there “should have been much more heed taken of those concerns”.
Ms Hudson said in Star’s case there was a “framing of family concerns as being malicious” with worries raised by Star’s great-grandmother dismissed as a sign of prejudice against the same-sex relationship between Star’s mother Frankie Smith and her partner Savannah Brockhill.
Ms Hudson said social workers should have been “getting behind that” and taking the concerns seriously, and added that “the notion of malicious referrals in itself is quite problematic” as it could mean people do not look “more widely and more deeply” at the child’s safety.
She said that the review’s report stressed that agencies should work more closely together, and proposed for specialist multi-agency child protection units to start work when there was concern over a child’s safety as opposed to the current system of multi-agency safeguarding hubs (MASH) which act as a “front door” to all referrals into children’s social care.
The multi-agency specialist teams would create a more “critical” work environment to ensure that child protection teams did not fail to act over fears of being labelled prejudiced, she said.
She told the committee that complete school closures should not happen in future, as school would have provided additional “eyes and ears” for Arthur’s safety.
And Ms Hudson noted an over-reliance on agency social workers and that in one instance an agency social worker for Star Hobson left with one week’s notice which had “very problematic consequences”.
Nick Page, chief executive of Solihull Council, said the council had “failed in our duty of care to Arthur”.
Kersten England, chief executive of Bradford Council, said the council had “missed key signs” to protect Star and that the council had been “too positive and optimistic” about Star’s living conditions and that her mother and partner’s views were taken at face value.
Social workers were “distracted or dissuaded from probing further” and changes to social workers had had an impact, she said.
No social workers have been sacked because of the two cases.
Asked whether any social workers had lost their job as a result of the two deaths, Ms England said that some had “departed” from the council but had chosen to do so.
Mr Page said: “The social workers that were involved directly with Arthur both of them are off work, one’s had a breakdown. And then the other one, we’re trying to get back into work at the moment.”
He added that some of the leadership had changed.