The case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, the six-year-old boy from Solihull who was abused, starved, tortured and finally murdered has horrified the nation. The Prime Minister has ordered a review to establish why social workers, who visited Arthur only two months before his death at the home he shared with his stepmother and father (now both in prison, convicted of murder and manslaughter respectively), concluded that there were “no safeguarding concerns”.
Speaking in the House of Commons on 6 December, Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, said: “Across the House and across the country, we find it impossible to imagine how any adult could commit such evil acts against a child.” True enough.
His colleague Julian Knight, the MP for Solihull in the West Midlands, insisted that the investigation should focus “on the clear breakdown in partnership between the likes of social services, the police and educators. Why on Earth weren’t they talking to each other? At the very least, we owe it to Arthur that every lesson from this horrific tragedy is learned.”
Arthur’s suffering was sustained and exacerbated by lockdown: home became his prison and there was no escape from the wickedness of his stepmother and father. Had he been able to attend school, an alert teacher might have noticed bruises on his body, seen how hungry he was or had an opportunity to listen to what he had to say about what was happening at home. Arthur’s grandmother was concerned about the boy’s safety and an uncle contacted the police. But there were no interventions to protect him.
One is reminded of previous cases of child abuse and child murder by parents. One thinks, in particular, of the terrible case of Daniel Pelka, from Coventry, who in 2012 was murdered by his mother and her partner after prolonged abuse. More recently, the adoptive parents of Tony Hudgell, who is seven, have been campaigning for more punitive sentences for those who abuse children. As a baby, Tony was attacked by his birth parents and so severely injured that his legs had to be amputated. The campaign for “Tony’s Law” – tougher sentences for those who cause serious harm to children – has been rightly endorsed by the government. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, said that new legislation would provide “maximum protection to the most vulnerable”.
The pandemic, lockdowns and school closures have taken a heavy toll on our children, not only on their mental health and general happiness but on their educational prospects. Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Select Committee, has spoken of “ghost children”, as many as 100,000 of them “lost in the system”, who have not fully returned to school since the start of the pandemic. These ghost children are, Mr Halfon said, “subject to potential safeguarding hazards, county lines gangs, online harm and, of course, awful domestic abuse”.
After years of austerity and deep cuts to local authority funding by the Cameron administration, we must invest in but also reform child social care so that social workers are liberated from excessive bureaucracy – the box-ticking, the form-filling. They must be free to investigate, question, to make home visits and, if necessary, intervene swiftly and earlier. Data should be shared and coordination across teams improved. Teachers and nursery workers have a role to play, but only if schools are open and children are in attendance. We must find out what has happened to the ghost children and bring them back to school.
At Christmas we naturally think of our children as well as the suffering in the world. The Christian story is ultimately about redemption: Jesus forgave his tormentors and executioners and preached a message that humanity can be saved from sin. Jesus said: “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
Those of us who are religious, and those of us who are not, should remember Arthur Labinjo-Hughes this Christmas, and pray for him. We should sincerely hope that this time the lessons of a child’s suffering will be learned so that other children, trapped like him in abusive homes, might yet be saved.
[see also: The lost children of lockdown]
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special