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The children’s social care system must be fixed to protect other children like Arthur

In recent weeks the media has reported extensively on the horrific murder of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, and questions have been raised about the safeguarding systems for children. Alison Millar, head of the abuse claims team at Leigh Day, discusses the broken system in which social workers and other professionals responsible for safeguarding children are operating.

Posted on 09 December 2021

Across the country a huge sadness has been felt as details emerged of the cruelty and neglect suffered by Arthur Labinjo-Hughes at the hands of his stepmother and father, who were subsequently convicted for his murder and manslaughter respectively.

The treatment of Arthur and the conditions he was living in have raised questions as to how involved social services and others responsible for children’s safeguarding were in his case, and if more could have been done to protect him from his sadistic carers.
 
Sadly, Arthur’s case is by no means unique - I read that last year more than 50 children in the UK were killed as a result of abuse or neglect. Of course, every such death is appalling and there should be anxious scrutiny of whether there were opportunities missed to prevent it.
 
The government has taken the immediate action of ordering a national inquiry into Arthur’s murder; however, there have been too many such inquiries into similarly appalling cases and what should distinguish this one, and honour Arthur’s memory, is a real commitment to doing something about the underlying, systemic problems in children’s social care. 
 
This will inevitably involve more resources, including crucially at the early intervention stages before children come into the care system.  There needs to be examination of the caseloads that are being allocated to social workers and whether this is impacting on outcomes and quality of services, morale and the retention of social workers with the experience and training necessary to handle complex and challenging cases.
 
The education secretary has said that “no government anywhere in the world can legislate for evil” but just like in earlier cases, from what is in the public domain, it appears that concerned relatives tried to raise the alarm with the statutory services - and Arthur himself made a disclosure that his stepmother had abused him - but they were catastrophically failed.
 
From a legal point of view, we have a state of affairs where in a recent case the Secretary of State argued that a local authority was justified in breaking the law by placing a vulnerable child in a secure children’s home that was not approved by the Secretary of State and not registered as a children’s home (Re T [2021] UKSC 35), on the basis that this was necessary: “duress of circumstances”.
 
This is a bizarre situation as the Supreme Court, in approving this placement (the child’s situation was dire and urgent), was not saying that the court’s authorisation would prevent the commission of a criminal offence – the manager of the accommodation could still find themselves exposed to criminal liability for operating an unregistered children’s home.
 
The judgment is a damning indictment of the children’s social care system, which the courts have been trying to bring to the attention of legislators for years.  Lady Black quoted from a judgment by Sir James Munby in 2017 in which he referred to what he termed “a well-known scandal”, namely: “the disgraceful and utterly shaming lack of proper provision in this country of the clinical, residential and other support services so desperately needed by the increasing numbers of children and young people …” 
 
This is not of course the same situation as Arthur Labinjo-Hughes but this is the broken system in which social workers and other professionals are operating.  
 
Children’s social care has for a long time been a “Cinderella service” with the legal framework and protections inadequate even compared to adult services.  Comments that have been made by others in schools, social care and others who are working at the frontline just show how children’s services (not just in Solihull) are failing, with thresholds for intervention set so high that – to manage “demand” - children in need of help or protection are being exposed to neglect, abuse or harm.  
 
In addition to this being egregious and morally wrong, this is only storing up bigger societal problems down the line since children exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences are known to have poorer outcomes, which impact both on them as individuals and on others around them: these can include substance and alcohol abuse, poor educational and occupational attainment, involvement in criminality, physical and mental health problems etc.
 
As a result of the High Court’s decision in the cases of HXA v Surrey County Council and YXA v Wolverhampton City Council [2021] EWHC 2974 shockingly Solihull Council may have owed no duty of care to Arthur – because in the current state of the law such a duty only arises when the local authority “assumes a responsibility” towards a child. This has been interpreted very restrictively by the courts in recent cases and is unlikely to apply to situations much short of the local authority taking a child into its care.  


Whilst there are arguments that by failing to act local authorities may be contravening positive obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, in my view this shows that the courts have taken a wrong turn on local authorities’ duties towards children since the case of CN & GN v Poole Council [2019] UKSC 25.  This really needs correcting to ensure there is a legal incentive on local authorities to prioritise cases like Arthur’s. 
 
Finally, it should be acknowledged that the recent news coverage of Arthur’s story may be very difficult for those directly affected by these themes, particularly in the run up to Christmas which can be a difficult time of year in any event for survivors of childhood abuse and trauma.  
 
The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) operates a free, confidential support line: 0808 801 0331 (Monday to Thursday: 10am – 9pm; Friday: 10am – 6pm; Saturday and Sunday – Closed) and you can also email NAPAC at support@napac.org.uk and they will respond within two working days.

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Alison Millar
Abuse claims

Alison Millar

Alison Millar works in the human rights department at Leigh Day, where she is the Head of Abuse claims

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