A case review will examine the lessons for social workers from the murder of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, following a “campaign of cruelty” by his stepmother and father.
Emma Tustin was convicted of murdering her stepson, who died from a severe blow to his head in June 2020, while Arthur’s father, Thomas Hughes, was convicted of manslaughter. Both were jailed for life today.
Coventry Crown Court heard that Solihull council social workers had visited the boy’s home two months before his death after concerns were raised by his grandmother, but they said they found no cause for concern, according to BBC News reports.
Following the boy’s death, police found a CCTV camera set up in Tustin and Hughes’ home and evidence from the pair’s mobile phones, which made a compelling case that Tustin had inflicted a fatal head injury and then failed to call an ambulance for 12 minutes.
The footage also showed that Tustin and Hughes forced Arthur to stand for hours in isolation and punished him for unauthorised movement. Due to evidence such as this, Tustin, 32, and Hughes, 29, were also convicted of several child cruelty charges.
The case has sparked widespread discussion in the media about the child protection system and why Arthur was not safeguarded from his abusers.
Solihull Safeguarding Children Partnership has commissioned a local child safeguarding practice review to examine the role of services and learn lessons.
The court heard that a Solihull Council social worker attended the boy’s home on 17 April 2020 and found a faint yellow bruise on his back but that he otherwise seemed “happy, playful and boisterous”, according to an earlier BBC News report.
The practitioner was later shown a photo taken the previous day by his grandmother which showed bruising on his shoulder and was unable to account for how it was missed.
A Solihull council spokesperson said: “This terrible tragedy has had a shocking impact on Arthur’s family and across the whole community. We send our heartfelt condolences to everyone affected.
“The circumstances around his death will now be subject to an independent review – the local child safeguarding practice review – and clearly it would be inappropriate for the council to comment ahead of the findings of that review.”
‘No stone unturned’
Stephen Cullen, independent scrutineer at Solihull Local Safeguarding Children Partnership, said: “Our focus will now be to work with the relevant partners to identify and respond to any learning from this tragic case.”
An NSPCC spokesperson said the pain and suffering Hughes and Tustin inflicted on Arthur before they killed him “almost defies belief”.
“The child safeguarding practice review must now leave no stone unturned in establishing exactly what took place before Arthur died and whether more could have been done to protect and ultimately save him. It also needs to inform a wider discussion of how we prevent these appalling cases of child cruelty from happening,” they said.
In a statement, Social Work England said: “We are deeply shocked by the events surrounding Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’ death and extend our condolences to all who knew him. In such a complex, tragic case there are clearly many different lines of inquiry. We will work closely with all partners and everyone involved in the case.”
Arthur died in hospital at 1am on 17 June last year with bruising to his head and body, bleeding gums and appearing under-weight.
Paramedics had found the boy unconscious with a neighbour performing CPR on him the day before, at his home in Cranmore Road, Shirley.
Police arrested Tustin and Hughes on suspicion of murder due to the nature of the boy’s injuries and their differing accounts of the events leading to his death. Both claimed the boy had banged his own head on the floor and was poorly behaved
Officers looked through footage from a CCTV camera set up in the home as well as videos, audio files, photos and texts found on Tustin’s and Hughes’ mobile phones.
Police said this evidence revealed that Tustin and Hughes had repeatedly assaulted the boy and forced him to stand for hours on end.
Meanwhile, medical experts determined that the boy’s death had been caused by a head trauma inflicted on him by an adult, most likely being vigorously shaken and his head banged repeatedly against a hard surface.
A post-mortem later revealed that Arthur had over 100 marks and bruises on his head, body and limbs including bruising of different ages.
Hospital tests also showed the boy had abnormally high salt-levels in his system, suggesting he may have been poisoned with contaminated food or water over a longer period of time.
‘Campaign of cruelty’
Detective inspector Laura Harrison said: “An innocent boy was subjected to a campaign of cruelty by the very people who were meant to be loving and protecting him.
“Despite the lies they told, we carefully built a case against the two of them. We were able to seize their phones and found the messages they exchanged which showed their anger towards Arthur.
“As part of our investigations we were able to access their home where we found a CCTV camera set up in their living room. And the footage from that helped us build up a picture of the grim reality of Arthur’s life inside that house.”
One thing the review is likely to consider is the impact of lockdown restrictions on the risks to Arthur, a point raised by the Association of Child Protection Professionals (AoCPP).
“Arthur’s situation appears to have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the impact that lock-down restrictions had on vulnerable children and social care services,” it said. “It happened at a time when services were having to rapidly change the way they worked.
“Taking children like Arthur out of the school routine risked making them invisible to professionals and services and made other possible routes for intervention very difficult to access.”
The number of child deaths and incidents of serious harm reported by councils rose by a fifth from 2019-20 to 2020-21, according to Department for Education data, and Ofsted has warned that the onset of lockdown exacerbated risks to children.
The AoCPP added: “We have evidence of the increases in harm and abuse during early Covid restrictions and lockdown, and this coupled with the need to quickly overhaul the way services were delivered, created the perfect storm leading to a delay in the recognition and assessment of many cases.”
Structural issues and cuts
The case also prompted reflection on the more deep-rooted challenges facing child protection.
In a discussion on Radio 4’s World At One, children’s services advisers and former local authority directors Ray Jones and Alan Wood disagreed on the root causes of the risks to children.
Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, said the key issue was cuts to services over the past decade.
“Police officers, health visitors, community nurses, social workers are all struggling because of 10 years of cuts to services. That makes it difficult for us to do the job we need to do.
“We need to have the time to get to know families and find out what’s happening, we need the time to communicate well with each other and share information. And all of that gets squeezed when the imperative is to close work down to take on the new work coming in.”
Wood said that, while there was definitely a need for “significant additional investment” in children’s services, this was not the sole cause.
Specialist child protection service mooted
He said that a specialist child protection services should be considered to tackle barriers to multi-agency working and skills gaps.
“There are barriers between our professionals, between police, between mental health workers, between local authority social workers, teachers, and we are still struggling with those barriers, and the kind of skills and techniques we need to work with children in very vulnerable and dangerous positions with families.
“I think we need to consider whether we should be specialising more in dedicated child professional workers, individuals who would have skills across all those professional areas I’ve discussed. I’m just worried that organisational imperatives, of the police service, the health service, local authorities etc will push people to think organisationally first before resolving the need of the child.”
He called on care review lead Josh MacAlister to consider the case for specialist child protection services in his inquiry. In its case for change report, published in June, the review said there was a tension between children’s services’ family support and child protection roles, and raised the question over whether they should be separated.
‘Danger of parcelling off child protection’
However, responding to Wood, Jones said: “I’d be very wary of structural change – it’s disruptive, it takes time to bed down and often we don’t give it time to produce any results before we have more structural change.
“I think there’s also an issue of thinking we should separate child protection from what social workers are doing, that police officers, that health visitors are doing every day. They are the people who need to know what’s happening in families…and not just the eyes and the years but the people who need to take action when they have concerns. If we parcel child protection off as a separate activity, we’ll actually going to find out that we’ve missed a lot of children that we ought to be concerned about because they are never known to child protection.”