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Suffer the little children

Suffer the little children

It’s unbearable to imagine the suffering that little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes felt in the days, hours, and minutes before his short life came to an end. The abandonment he must have felt. The well of loneliness that he had touched. The utter despair he had experienced of being a small boy who cried for help and whose pleas went unanswered. 

Imagine, the pain of believing you were unloved. And you’re six. Six. I can hardly bear it. 

But what must he really have thought? What depths did he plunge to? What went through his young mind? Does a six-year-old even have the capacity to imagine the future or envisage the end or what that even could mean? To be able to grasp how change can happen. To be so powerless and so utterly oppressed. To accept horror as your norm and not comprehend the finality of death. 

What could possibly have gone on in his little brain? Perhaps he believed this torture would just carry on forever. That this was his life. No escape. Just his normal. And is that thought even worse than the reality that then occurred?

But then the heartbreak of hearing a little boy saying, ‘no one loves me’ and bang, the realisation that this little emaciated child – too weak to even lift his duvet from the floor on which he was forced to sleep – knew. He knew that life could be different, otherwise, there would have been no plaintive cries out that what was happening to him was wrong. That he wasn’t just being starved of food, but of affection, nurture, and of love, that they too were absent.

That’s the heartbreak. He knew. He knew. And he cared.

And when a child needlessly dies while under the care of the state – and it happens too often, yes, it does, because once is one too many, it’s too easy to wring our hands and say that there are no easy lessons to learn from the tragedy. That these cases are complex. That needs are too various. Relationships too messy. Lives too chaotic. Social workers too busy. That the lack of data-sharing impedes progress. That slashed budgets stall improvement. That the deception of abusers is too dark, too deceitful, to overcome. 

Arthur may have been killed by his stepmother and father, but the state conspired to let it happen


And so we accept the unimaginable, because it’s all just too much to untangle. A child dies. A life is snuffed out. Their potential gone forever. And the excuses are never really laid bare for what they are.

But in the case of the callous torture and murder of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, there are clear lessons to learn. Listen to children. See children. Don’t take a potential abuser’s word.
My mother was a child protection social worker for years in Dundee and she would never have just walked away from seeing a child on the word of an adult saying everything was OK.

You have one job: to care for a child in need, to manage risk, make life better than it was before the state intervened. Otherwise, what’s the point? That is what you are there for. And Arthur was catastrophically failed.

So, when I hear bleeding hearts say that social workers do their best and they never get applauded for the good that they do, for the lives they have saved, for the broken souls they have mended, that’s because when it works – and it mainly does – they are doing the job that they are trained for and paid to do. 

And while one must assume that no one comes into social work to then be responsible by their own neglect for letting a child die, let’s not mince words here, for there is one unassailable fact: Arthur may have been killed by his stepmother and father, but the state conspired to let it happen.

And while there are always shades of grey, when the warning signs are there, when red flags are literally being waved in front of you, when a child is saying he needs help, when the bruises are obvious and when that child is not in plain sight, do not walk away having ticked a box that a home visit was done.

And don’t just blame the pandemic. 

Yes, lockdown has been a gift to abusers. The closure of schools, routine GP visits cancelled, playgrounds emptied, children absent from their own hearings, face-to-face interaction restricted, and the removal of millions of children from community settings in which they would normally and routinely be in contact with people from outside their own home, all of that has brought untold but nonetheless entirely predictable dangers to children already known to be at risk.

Children literally imprisoned in their own homes with the monsters who maltreat them has amounted to state-sanctioned abuse. 

And that’s why today, when I didn’t want to be writing yet another column about the debasement of politics and the degradation of public policy by the venality of Boris Johnson and his ilk, I am left so angry about the lies and fudge about Christmas parties in No 10 while the rest of us were forced into a lockdown, which for Arthur became a death sentence.

Shutting schools, forcing dysfunctional families together, removing normal professional safety checks, barring outside family visits – let’s remember here that Arthur’s concerned uncle was threatened with prosecution if he broke travel restrictions to try and see his nephew – all of that helped to create an environment that colluded to make the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes almost inevitable.

A six-year-old’s life – and he won’t be the only casualty – should never have been the collateral damage worth paying for a reaction to a pandemic which didn’t make vulnerable children any less vulnerable, it made them much more so. And we should have understood that.

Downing Street might well laugh at breaking their own rules but the rest of us have had our hearts broken for simply following them. And the death of little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes should haunt the prime minister and his hyenas for the rest of their days, as it will haunt the rest of us.

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