The account of the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes is harrowing in the extreme. To be exposed to the details of such suffering and cruelty to this little boy makes it difficult to comprehend how anyone could treat a child in such a manner.
There is a genuine and rightful sense of shock. In these circumstances, politicians and media outlets of every type demand justice and to find out who is to blame.
Tory MPs are quick to say “Social services should not be let off the hook”. While no agency involved in child protection should be absolved of scrutiny it is noticeable that the police already appear to have fallen off the media scrutiny. This is despite being cited as one of the agencies which had significant information passed to them.
What motivated the individuals who murdered Arthur may never really be known. A matter of individual behaviour always has a number of individual issues as well as social questions that shape how they act.
People can act in very different ways even in what seem to be similar circumstances.
However, there is a price to pay for huge cuts to local authorities’ budgets which include child protection responsibilities. This happened in the context of a decade and more of increased poverty.
Now 36 percent of all children from families with a child under five in Britain now live on or below the poverty line—rising to 48 percent for black children. And the cuts meant the withdrawal of many services which offered support but also monitoring of children.
The impact on social work teams dealing with a huge and increasing volume of referrals over this period has been to make an extremely difficult job harder. It is less and less tenable in terms of maximising the protection for the most vulnerable.
Yet inevitably it will be front line social workers that will be in the headlines.
Child protection social workers often work at home in the evenings and at the weekends clocking up more than 50 hours a week—with the excess work never recognised, let alone paid for.
A culture exists in many teams that to object to this overload is seen as bad form. Weak union organisation amid years of low industrial struggle increases the ability of the bosses to individualise the stress so many social workers feel.
Bullying by management is rife in social work and lower-level managers themselves are often bullied by those at the top squeeze more and more out of their staff.
Timelines for assessments and reports often take priority over the actual interactions between the social worker and the child. Social work burnout is common with many not able to continue working in the field.
Inexperienced social workers given large and complex caseloads beyond their trained level is not uncommon. Child protection teams are often heavily staffed with agency social workers on short term contracts which mean high staff turnover and lack of continuity of care for some of the most vulnerable children.
The closure of the “Sure Start” family centres in the 2000s which offered practical advice and social interaction often for young mothers struggling to cope and seeking assistance was an appalling government policy.
Increasingly looking to the private sector to provide placements for children removed from their parents’ care has led to a grotesque commodification of children whereby private firms charge huge sums to often provide fairly basic services. They often end such placements if the child is particularly “challenging”.
Local foster placements are often virtually non-existent so children are left in dangerous surroundings as there is no practical alternative. It’s not uncommon for children to be placed in caravan parks and hotels with staff they do not know keeping watch.
All this is an outcome of the decisions made by governments who now shed crocodile tears.
The overall result is that social work as an institution becomes less and less about people’s needs and increasingly about control.
There was also recently another horrendous case of child deaths that could have been prevented.
Three children were aboard the dingy which sank in the English Channel leading to the deaths of 27 people.
The adults on board are reported to have rung the British authorities when in distress only to be told to “ring France”. Three children drowned.
There aren’t even demands for an inquiry for these young lives.
Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was failed by the system that in different ways fails so many.
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