The Guardian view on child protection failures: social workers need backup

There were 536 incidents involving serious harm to a child, where abuse was a factor, in the year to March 2021 in England. Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, whose murderers were convicted last December, were among the 223 children who were killed. For reasons including timing, the existence of upsetting video footage showing both children being assaulted, and the fact that in each case a woman who was not a relative was convicted of murder, these tragedies received far more attention than is typical.

The purpose of a just-published report on these cases, by the safeguarding practice review panel, is to bring together lessons and suggest how to make similarly awful events less likely in future. How urgently this needs to happen was further illustrated this week when Laura Castle was convicted of murdering Leiland-James Corkill, a baby she was in the process of adopting (the local authority in this case, Cumbria, has apologised).

The UK is not an outlier when it comes to child homicide. New figures show that in the year 2021-22, the numbers of serious incidents and deaths significantly dropped. Yet the strong public reaction to cases in which young children have been cruelly treated, and state agencies have failed to intervene, is one reason why ministers are obliged to act. Rightly, people want to have confidence that where children are at risk of serious harm, social workers will step in.

In the past, failures were too readily pinned on individuals. Systems are rightly the focus of the panel’s recommendations, which aligns them with the broader children’s social care review also published this week. Correctly, the panel asserts that inexperienced social workers, especially agency workers new to an area, cannot be expected to succeed at “intrinsically complex and challenging work”. While child protection must be linked to wider social work practice, the proposal for multi-agency units, with a remit to deal with abuse and neglect, is sound and should be implemented.

Improved training and leadership are crucial. Lack of critical thinking and failure to challenge are identified as highly problematic in situations where explanations from abusive parents were too readily accepted. In their response, ministers must set out how social workers are to be recruited and retained. In Bradford, where Star lived, the context was “a service in turmoil” and made worse by the pandemic. Star’s mother, who was 17 when she was born, ought to have received support as a teenage mother, but did not because it was not offered to over-16s. Health visiting caseloads are also highlighted as a problem. The dismissal of concerns raised by Star’s great-grandmother as “malicious”, and motivated by homophobia, is singled out as an egregious failure.

Concerns around information-sharing and decision-making are painfully familiar from previous inquiries. Undoubtedly, catastrophic errors of judgment were made. But the difficulty of the work is well explained by the report, with issues of domestic violence and mental health blurring the pictures that should have had Arthur and Star at their centres. Nadhim Zahawi and his colleagues should study it carefully. On them rests the responsibility to make change.

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