While services designed to protect Arthur Labinjo-Hughes were involved with the family, we do not know yet what could have been done differently to prevent his death; that is the subject for a learning review. I am not condoning poor practice; we must recognise and address this. However, we should appreciate the context: the system in England is “a 30-year-old tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape”, according to the chair of the independent review of children’s social care.
I have facilitated workshops for practitioners working with child neglect throughout the pandemic. These practitioners are running on empty and yet have found inventive ways to ensure children continue to be protected. However, this is at significant cost.
I have witnessed workers crying with frustration, struggling with limited resources, created by year-on-year cuts to budgets. Others are risking Covid, violence and aggression, and feel compelled to visit at weekends and out of hours to keep children safe. I have heard from supervisors working long hours in front of a screen trying to support workers and manage their caseloads virtually. All staff are struggling with their current workloads as a tsunami of new cases roll in as the pandemic takes its toll on families who can cope no longer.
The contribution that health and social care professionals, shop assistants and others have made during the pandemic is acknowledged frequently. Not so the contribution of those working to safeguard our children. What does that say about our society? Unless we recognise the need for well-resourced services and value the contribution of these practitioners, children remain vulnerable.
Emeritus professor in child welfare, University of Sheffield
While agreeing with most of what Harry Ferguson concludes about the case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes (Opinion, 3 December), I am disappointed by the narrowness of the analysis, and the focus on agency and individual practice.
As a retired social worker with 30 years’ experience, I have watched with impotent fury and despair the recent hollowing out of social services by governments committed to funding cuts and privatisation.
During my career, the priorities of the job shifted from care, support and prevention towards intervention and mopping up the mess. Social work before the 1980s was sloppy and unfocused, and needed a shake-up, and value-for-money auditing had to be part of this. What it did not need was to be turned into a skeleton emergency response service, forced to create thresholds even for responding to suggestions of neglect and abuse.
Prof Harry Ferguson’s article says: “Health visitors, early help and therapeutic services that normally support young children and parents retreated from homes and either went online or stopped altogether.”
The use of the word “retreat” implies that it was voluntary. The health visiting service was categorised as a “partial stop” service in the NHS’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response programme – up to 63% of health visitors were redeployed, some to administrative tasks. This was not of our choosing, and those remaining carried huge burdens in a service already under-resourced. As always, the service to families was the priority.
Chair, Institute of Health Visiting