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Upset child

Photo: Motortion / Adobe Stock

Following the shocking murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, Michael Lavalette explains how the system lets down vulnerable children

In recent weeks the media have highlighted the appalling deaths of two young children, Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, at the hands of their parents and carers. The details of what the children were put through were revealed in court and are truly horrifying. It is difficult to comprehend why anyone could mistreat young children in such a way.

The cases have shocked many, and have led to calls from the media and politicians that we need to find out ‘who is to blame’. And before the serious case-reviews have even begun, Tory politicians and various press outlets are clear that it is social workers and other public-sector workers who should carry the can.

We will never fully know why the parents and carers of these two little children acted the way they did, but it is important we look at the broader context to assess some aspects of what might have gone wrong. The first thing to note is that whilst every child death is a tragedy, these events are actually quite rare. We remember the names of Peter Connelly (‘Baby P’) or Victoria Climbie – or now Arthur or Star – because these are unusual tragedies.  

According to the NSPCC (2021) in the last five years there was an average of 58 child deaths by assault or undetermined intent a year in the UK. Of course, 58 child deaths are too many, but this figure is actually low in comparison to countries like the US or Australia, for example.

Although many of us fear ‘stranger danger’ as a threat to our children, in reality child homicides are most commonly caused by the child’s parent or step-parent. The majority of these children will be less than one year old at the time of their death (NSPCC 2021). It’s worth noting, that in the vast majority of cases, children who die at the hands of their parents or carers are not known to social services departments. 

Roots of violence in the family

The second thing to note, then, is that these tragedies overwhelmingly take place within the confines of the family. The family is a central institution within modern society. It is a key ideological pillar of modern capitalism. We are told it’s a ‘haven in a heartless world’, a place of safety from the harms of society.

In reality, however, the family is an immensely contradictory institution. It is a place of care and control, of love and hate, of support and oppression. It’s also a place of violence. Each year there are over one million calls to police in England and Wales about domestic abuse, and on average someone contacts the police every thirty seconds for help with domestic abuse (Safe Lives 2021).

According to the Office for National Statistics (2021), over the last five years, the total number of recorded domestic-abuse related crimes has rocketed in England and Wales. In the year April 2015 to March 2016, there were 421,185 such incidents, in the period April 2020 to March 2021, it had gone up to 845,734.

And whilst violence and oppression occur at all levels of society, intra-familial violence and abuse is more likely where material hardship, inequality, oppression, and poor social conditions are more extreme. The pressures of poor and overcrowded housing, poor jobs, work stresses, and financial pressures can eat away at family life and destroy relationships, creating the conditions in which violence and abuse can take hold.

Indeed, there is one area of family life, in England at least, where violence is not even condemned. For many ideologues of the political right, the parental ‘right’ to smack their child is still shaped by notions of ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’, that children need firm punishment to know the difference between right and wrong. And that punishing children is a ‘private matter’. Although the law on physical punishment of children has changed in recent years, parents are still able to smack their children, so long as it is ‘reasonable’, whatever that may mean.

All these factors shape family life in myriad ways. Into this mix, local-authority social workers in children-and-family teams are sent in to deal with issues of abuse and neglect. Again, it worth unpicking these terms. ‘Neglect’ overwhelmingly means family poverty. According to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG 2021), there were 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2019-20, that’s 31% of all children in Britain. The vast majority of these children live in a home where someone has a paid job.

The impact of austerity

Decades of cuts to services and benefits, and of privatisation and marketisation of services, have made life for families much more difficult. Simple remedies, like increasing child benefit, or removing the two-child limit and the benefit cap, would lift thousands of children out of poverty. Proper union rates of pay for all jobs would increase family incomes and benefit even more. Properly funded, state provided childcare would remove one of the great costs associated with family life. A council-house building programme would offer the chance of an affordable family home for all.

As well as ‘neglect’, social workers have to respond to issues of ‘abuse’. Children will be referred by a range of agencies, and social workers will be expected to work with the family to protect the interests of the child (or children) and support the family. Here it is worth noting that social-work teams have also been deeply affected by the years of marketisation and austerity. Services (such as Sure Start, for example) have been withdrawn, making the social-work task of supporting families much more difficult.

Increasing levels of poverty mean increasing numbers of referrals. Lord Laming’s review of children’s services in 2009 suggested that children-and-family social workers should ideally have fifteen ‘live’ cases at any point. The majority have well over forty. As a consequence, workloads are huge, with workers spending evenings and weekends in unpaid overtime.

Whilst most people assume social workers work with people, the majority of time is spent on laptops and PCs form filling, itself tied in with arbitrary ‘target setting’ by local managers. Compounding this is a culture of management bullying in a context of weak unionisation. All of which contributes to significant turnover of staff and worker ‘burn out’.

Any attempt to come to some understanding of the horror of the death of a child needs to have some understanding of the ways these events are rooted in the alienation, inequality, and pressures of modern capitalism, and the distortions and devastation it brings to our lives.

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