Social services worked from home while children they supervised were murdered, review finds

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Anna Fox

By Anna Fox

Published: 26/05/2022

- 09:22

Updated: 14/02/2023

- 11:16

Family concerns were labelled "malicious" as warning signs were dismissed by social services

A review ordered by the Education Secretary after the horrendous deaths of children Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes has revealed relatives' concerns were "too often disregarded" by social services.

Both children were murdered by their parents partners' throughout lockdown, while the social services staff responsible worked from home and conducted "virtual visits" over FaceTime.

On Thursday, a new review discovered that the remote working arrangements led to a "fragmented" oversight of child abuse cases and a vagueness surrounding social worker accountability.

Star Hobson was 20-months-old when she was brutally murdered by Savannah Brockhill.
Star Hobson was 20-months-old when she was brutally murdered by Savannah Brockhill.
West Yorkshire Police

Six-year-old Arthur was murdered by his dad's partner, Emma Tustin in June 2020, who inflicted bruises on the child for "everyday of lockdown".

20-month-old Star died three months later, following a vicious assault by Savannah Brockhill, her mum's girlfriend.

Both children were fatally abused throughout lockdown at the hands of their parents’ partners and their cases prompted national outrage at the lack of safeguarding in place to prevent their deaths.

In order to prevent further tragedies, the approach to child protection in England must "change fundamentally", the report states.

The report proposes the establishment of Specialist committed multi-agency teams, comprised of experienced child protection professionals in every local authority area, to look into allegations of significant abuse to children.

Undated family handout file photo issued by West Midlands Police of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. The Government has announced a major review into the circumstances which led to the murder of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. It aims to determine what improvements are needed by the agencies that came into contact with Arthur in the months before he was murdered by stepmother Emma Tustin at their home in Solihull. Issue date: Sunday December 5, 2021.
Arthur Labinjo-Hughes
Family Handout

A Government ministerial child protection board is set to be established following the report, to ensure child protection policy is co-ordinated in a thorough manner.

Chair of the review, Anne Hudson conveyed concerns at how homeschooling during this period, meant Arthur's teachers had not observed him when he was at his most vulnerable.

Face-to-face visits were conducted by social services during the pandemic, but on one instance they participated in a "virtual visit" for Star in June 2020 via FaceTime, despite increasing family concerns to authorities about bruises the child had acquired.

It remains unclear why a virtual visit was conducted in place of a face-to-face home visit, the report concludes.

The review said: "Although there was a discussion with Frankie, and Star was observed to be ‘well dressed and alert [and] to respond to her name over the phone’, a virtual visit limited the opportunity for the social worker to use their observational skills, becoming over-reliant on what they heard from Frankie and what they were shown."

Star's maternal grandmother's referrals to children's services in Bradford four months before her murder, were dismissed as "malicious" following a social work team visit to the household.

Following the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughe and Star Hobson, Tustin was convicted of Arthur’s murder and Hughes of manslaughter, and Brockhill was convicted of Star’s murder while Smith was convicted of causing or allowing her death.

Around 80 professionals across Bradford, Birmingham and Solihull were interviewed by the review panel, including members of the children's wider family.

The report found that child protection work is inherently complex in nature, but the system in place does not provide professionals with ample opportunities "to get to the truth of what life is like for children".

The role of women in perpetrating abuse may have been side-blinded in how social workers perceived the risk to children, "given societal beliefs about women as caregivers".

NSPCC Chief Executive, Sir Peter Wanless said the deaths of Arthur and Star "have left a lasting scar on the nation".

The Independent Chairwoman of the Bradford Partnership, Janice Hawkes emphasised that the partnership is "entirely committed to improving the safety of children across Bradford" and publicly apologised for their tragic deaths.

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