Story updated with sentencing information and sector responses
A local safeguarding review will recommend improvements to social work practice in Bradford after the killing of 16-month-old Star Hobson by her mother’s partner.
Savannah Brockhill, 28, was found guilty of murdering her partner’s daughter, while Star’s mother, Frankie Smith, 20, was found guilty of causing or allowing the girl’s death.
Police described the pair’s “barbaric” actions against Star, who died on 22 September 2020 in an ambulance after suffering a cardiac arrest in Keighley, West Yorkshire.
A forensic post-mortem revealed that Star had suffered significant damage to her internal organs and had a fractured skull and shins.
Bradford Crown Court heard that Star’s injuries showed she had been punched, stamped on, or kicked in the stomach.
Star also suffered cruelty and psychological harm included being filmed as she was being frightened awake or when she fell off her chair or into her food.
Brockhill and Smith pleaded not guilty to the offences against them when they were charged by police in September last year but this week a jury found them both guilty.
Five referrals to Bradford council’s children’s services were made by friends and family from January 2020 to Star’s death, but Smith “fobbed off social workers, persuading them the referrals were malicious”, according to Guardian reports.
Scrutiny committee minutes from August 2020, the month before Star died, record high levels of vacancies and sickness among social workers and reference to referrals with no action. Councillors were told at the time by ex-director of children’s services (DCS) Mark Douglas that the latter issue had recently improved, after “a period in which foundations towards good social work were not put in place” in the wake of a 2018 ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating.
Bradford council’s interim DCS Marium Haque, in a joint statement with other leaders of the local safeguarding partnership from the police and healthcare services, said: “We all deeply regret that not all the warning signs were seen that could have led to firmer statutory enforcement action.”
A local child safeguarding practice review, being written by an independent author, will be published in January 2022 with recommendations for children’s services and other agencies in Bradford to better protect children in their care.
Brockhill was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in prison, while Smith will serve an eight-year sentence.
‘Not all the warning signs were seen’
Bradford Partnership leaders – Haque, Bradford district commander chief superintendent Sarah Jones and chief officer of Bradford District and Craven CCG Helen Hirst – said they were sorry for Star’s death and that there was “much that we need to learn from this case”.
They said they had already made improvements to their safeguarding practices but said that they needed “to fully understand why opportunities to better protect Star were missed”.
“We offered support and assistance to Star’s family for what we believed their needs to be, at that given time, but we all deeply regret that not all the warning signs were seen that could have led to firmer statutory enforcement action,” they said.
They said the local review would provide “partners and colleagues in our district and across the country with clear recommendations so we can better protect children in our care”.
And they said they would contribute their learning to the government’s national review into child protection launched following the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes murder.
Susan Hinchcliffe, leader of Bradford council, said: “Social workers in our district support a great many children and young people and carry out work in circumstances that are often very challenging.
“It is essential therefore that lessons are learned from Star’s terrible death so that we can better protect our children.”
DfE: We will not hesitate to remove services from council’s control
The Department for Education (DfE) appointed former Leeds director of children’s services Steve Walker in September as a commissioner to work with Bradford council’s children’s services earlier this year after Ofsted reported a “slow pace” of improvement since its ‘inadequate’ rating three years ago.
Walker, who is due to review whether the council can run its own children’s services next month, spoke to the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi this week to discuss his work with the authority so far.
The DfE said Star’s death was “deeply disturbing” and it would consider Walker’s full report before deciding whether to strip the council of responsibility for its children’s services.
“On seeing that we will not hesitate to remove service control if that is what’s necessary to drive rapid improvements,” it said.
Slow to identify risk
An Ofsted report following a monitoring visit to Bradford in April this year found delays in the council’s completion of assessments, which it said led to the council not identifying risk, need and early intervention quickly enough.
Inspectors said Bradford’s restructuring of its services and significant investment in staffing and service improvement planning had “not led to sufficient positive change for some children” due to the breadth and depth of the inadequacy identified in 2018.
Meanwhile, a report following a visit in December 2020, three months after Star’s death, found the service was “heavily reliant on agency social workers”.
It said: “Improvement remains fragile while there is such workforce instability.”
And at a monitoring visit in June 2019, Ofsted found some social work caseloads at the council exceed 50 children and criticised it for “insufficient progress” causing “delays in children in need and children in need of protection having their needs identified and addressed”.
Inspectors at that time said while there was “some effective social work practice” happening in Bradford council’s children’s services, there was “weaknesses in management grip of social work practice at all levels”.
Organisations across the sector expressed sadness this week at the reports of Star’s death and offered condolences to her family.
Steve Crocker, vice president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said it was important that social workers in child protection were supported sufficiently.
“When things do go wrong it is crucial that we take onboard any lessons, but it’s equally as important that the system is designed and, crucially, resourced properly, so that we can identify children and families who need our help and support earlier to prevent them from reaching crisis point and effectively safeguard children,” he said.
“Social workers are one part of a multi agency group of professionals tasked with keeping children safe from harm; they carry huge responsibility on behalf of us all and they must be supported by a system that enables them to do their jobs effectively. We hope any system level recommendations that come out of the national review into children’s social care will enable us to better meet the needs of all children and young people.”
The British Association of Social Workers also said it was important social workers were recognised for the good work they do.
“Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility and social workers continue to support thousands of children every day, 24 hours. Often, the positive work that improves the lives of children and the hard work of families in challenging circumstances goes unrecognised,” it said in a statement.
“Whilst not all child deaths are preventable, we must ensure that we enhance support systems that can help keep children safe and supported including creating the ‘time’, ‘support’, ‘supervision’ and training for social workers to do their job.”
Social Work England, meanwhile, said it would “continue to work with all partners where our involvement may be required”.