The cases of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson have been well publicised over recent weeks. Arthur’s untimely death at the hands of his father’s partner, Emma Tustin, during the first lockdown and the death of Star Hobson at the hands of her mother’s partner, Savannah Brockhill, in September 2020 have inevitably led to questions around social services’ involvement with the children. Many of the details regarding the involvement of social services are unclear at present, but the cases highlight issues that may become recurrent when considering children’s services during the height of the pandemic.
Keoghs previously commented on the increases in child abuse and pressures on social services during the pandemic in an article drafted by Partner Sarah Swan in September 2020. At that stage, we suggested it was likely that public sector organisations would face a raft of claims stemming from events in lockdown. Sadly the cases of Arthur and Star illustrate the issues faced by social services during this unprecedented period, and the possible effects of the restrictions on children’s services and, ultimately, the vulnerable children they protect.
According to media reports, in February 2019, Arthur’s mother was convicted of manslaughter for killing her partner, who it is reported was abusive to her. Following her conviction Arthur was cared for by his father, Thomas Hughes. In August 2019, Mr Hughes met Ms Tustin online.
In November 2019 Mr Hughes was called to Arthur’s school to discuss issues with his behaviour, including a fixation with death.
In March 2020, Mr Hughes took Arthur to a Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services practitioner. She reported that his physical appearance was fine, and his anxiety and aggression had reduced. When the lockdown restrictions were announced on 23 March 2020, Mr Hughes and Arthur moved in with Ms Tustin.
It is said that concerns about Arthur were consequently reported to social services by numerous people on more than one occasion, but initial assessments by social services concluded that there was no safeguarding concern. Concerns were also reported to the police, who are said to have taken no further action due to the involvement of social services. It is now clear that during this period Arthur was suffering from horrific abuse and neglect. Arthur did not return to school when they reopened in June 2020.
Arthur was left with an unsurvivable brain injury following an assault by Ms Tustin on 16 June 2020.
Ms Tustin was convicted of murder and Mr Hughes of manslaughter, and they were imprisoned for 29 and 21 years respectively. The details of the case were so upsetting that the jury asked the court to observe a minute’s silence following their guilty verdicts.
On 14 December 2021 Star Hobson’s mother’s partner, Savannah Brockhill, was found guilty of her murder, and her mother, Frankie Smith, was convicted of causing or allowing the death of a child. Star was just 16 months old at the time.
Hers is another incredibly sad sequence of events. Media reports state that concerns were first raised to social services in January 2020. The case is said to have been closed in May 2020. No details around the investigation or the closure are available. In May 2020, another referral was made following allegations that Brockhill has used a wrestling move on one-year-old Star. A social worker is said to have visited the same day. Numerous referrals are said to have been made in June and visits were conducted, but the case again closed in July 2020.
On 2 September 2020, it is said that another referral was made following bruising to Star’s face. An investigation began, but the case was again closed on 7 September. Tragically, Star died on 22 September 2020 following a severe physical assault by Brockhill.
These tragic cases appear to be chronologically tied to the pandemic and consequent lockdowns. Although it is impossible to say whether the outcomes may have been different, it has been widely reported that children’s services struggled (and have continued to struggle) during lockdown and as a result of the wider effects of the pandemic.
During the first lockdown, social workers were told to minimise going into children’s homes where possible by seeing children and parents on doorsteps, in gardens and on Zoom. Whilst in homes, social workers were instructed to wear PPE and stay two metres away from others. There is no doubt that such assessments are not of the standard usually expected from social workers, and make assessing risks to children incredibly difficult.
There is also the added issue of the number of childcare professionals absent with Covid-19, or forced to isolate, alongside increasing mental health problems in the general population, which will inevitably have affected staffing levels during this period.
The closure of schools also had a significant effect on children’s services. Arthur’s school was closed from March until the beginning of June. The school did raise concerns about his welfare in 2019 prior to lockdown. Schools are key in recognising safeguarding issues and making referrals to relevant bodies. Removing this resource means that schools cannot perform this function. Additionally, school closures meant children were spending significant time at home.
The effect of GPs only taking telephone appointments during the pandemic (and to some extent to this day), the closure of children’s groups, support groups for mental health and early years services, lack of multi-agency face-to-face meetings, the heavy workload of the police, and lack of contact with wider family members and friends also meant that further safeguards were removed. For children in abusive households this was unquestionably damaging, and eroded a support network of adults outside of the home.
Incidents of child abuse and referrals to social services have increased significantly over the past 18 months. There is now a record number of children in care. Social workers are reported to be suffering from burnout after handling large (and increasing) caseloads in the context of the pandemic, in comparison with their colleagues employed in the private sector. The pressures on social services during that period and to date are clear. It is an unfortunate fact that these issues lead to the service provided to children being affected.
Although Covid-19 has clearly had an impact, it would be simplistic to suggest that the current pressures on children’s services are solely a result of the pandemic. Funding for local authorities and children’s services has been consistently reduced in the past ten years. There is no question that this impacts the care available.
Lord Laming, who led the Victoria Climbie Inquiry, recently stated that the “marked reduction in funding of local authorities in the last 10 years has had a real withdrawal from frontline services. And I think it’s become something of a crisis service, rather than a preventive service”. The suggestion that funding reductions mean social services are possibly no longer able to prevent child abuse, and instead focus on children in crisis is incredibly worrying. This is clearly relevant, particularly when considered alongside the impact of the pandemic and cases such as these.
Unfortunately it seems inevitable that public sector organisations will be presented with civil claims relating to the actions of their workers during the pandemic. It is without question that these organisations, already struggling from a lack of funding, were faced with an unprecedented situation and had to adapt. However, this did not erode the duties that local authorities owe to children in their care. The question is how the courts will look at these cases and potential failures in light of the wider context of the claims.
There are as yet, we believe, no reported cases where the court has had to consider the effect of Covid-19 on public services, and the consequences when it comes to liability for civil claims. It will be interesting when this issue is addressed and what effect this has on public sector liability and also the Bolam test for social workers and other care practitioners.
However, the first thought must go to how to minimise the prospects of a repetition of these tragedies. No doubt they are extreme and incredibly sad cases. The context of the cases provides a glimpse into the issues faced by social workers during that period and beyond. It is unclear whether social services were at fault, and it is noteworthy that neither child appears to have been in the care of a local authority. Nevertheless, it is an example of cases which are likely to give rise to civil claims, due to an almost perfect storm of issues. Careful analysis of the effect of the pandemic on these cases will be necessary when considering the legal issues.
In the meantime, it is necessary for public sector organisations to be alive to the issues and the risks to children presented by the pandemic. Conceivably, it would be worthwhile to pay careful attention to referrals dealt with during the lockdown period so as to consider whether these may require reassessment to protect the children involved. Any action that can be taken to reduce the risk of similar tragedies must be prioritised.
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