The tragic death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, the six-year old boy who was beaten, tortured and killed by his father and his partner, has put into sharp focus the issue of child protection during successive lockdowns. Arthur was subjected to extreme cruelty (forced to stand for hours, deprived of food, force-fed salt), assaulted and killed by his father Thomas Hughes – who was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 21 years in jail – and his partner Emma Tustin – who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of 29 years before being considered for parole.
Arthur had lived with his mother until February 2019, when she was jailed for stabbing a man to death. He went to live with his father, Hughes, who later met Emma Tustin in August 2019. In March 2020, after the lockdown was announced, Hughes and Arthur moved in with Tustin and her two children in Solihull. On 16 April 2020 Arthur’s paternal grandmother contacted Solihull social services after taking pictures of bruises on Arthur’s back. She tried to convince Hughes to leave Arthur with her, but he refused. A social worker and assistant visited the family home the next day. The social worker reported she could only see a faint bruise and was told that Arthur was play fighting with Tustin’s son. She found ’no safeguarding concerns’. On 18 April the paternal uncle spoke to West Midlands police and sent pictures of the bruises but did not hear back. On 20 April 2020 the paternal grandmother informed the school. The school contacted social services and were told social services had ‘no concerns’. Tustin’s stepfather made an anonymous referral to social services in May 2020, The school reopened on 8 June 2020 but Arthur never went back to school, as his father kept him home. On 15 June 2020 a hairdresser saw Arthur and described him as ‘skeletal’. Paramedics were called to the family home on the afternoon of 16 June 2020. Arthur was taken to hospital and died the next day. He had more than 130 bruises on his body. His fatal brain injuries were the result of Tustin hitting his head repeatedly on a hard surface.
Now that the criminal process has concluded, the government has announced a national review – which will take over from the adjourned serious case review specified under the Children Act 1989. The government has also announced a joint targeted inspection into four agencies involved in child protection in Solihull (social care, police, health and probation).
We reported earlier on predictions that lockdown would have a negative impact on child protection as children become less visible in these blogs: ‘Abuse in the age of a pandemic’, ‘Child protection in a pandemic, the lockdown effect’ and ‘What happened to child protection during the COVID19 pandemic?’ .
It remains to be seen whether Arthur’s sad death is indeed linked to the ‘lockdown effect’, or whether agencies failed to safeguard a vulnerable child, in ways reminiscent of the scandals about Victoria Climbié and ‘Baby P’.