Sonia Sodha

Britain’s broken protection system

The abuse and murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes by his father and stepmother defies all human comprehension. Six-year-old Arthur was starved, beaten, poisoned with salt and forced to stand in the hallway for fourteen hours at a time. Several extended family members – his grandmother, uncle, the father of his stepmother – tried to raise the alarm with children’s services, with his school and with the police, yet no action was taken and Arthur died of the catastrophic injuries inflicted by his stepmother in June last year.

What’s most striking about ministers’ reactions to this heinous crime is there has been more focus on whether his father and stepmother have been sentenced to an adequate amount of time in prison than reflection on the role the government’s own policies have played in undermining child protection in recent years. Increasing their sentences may or may not be appropriate, but it will not bring Arthur back, nor will it do anything for other children at serious risk of harm from abusive parents.

Like Victoria Climbié, Peter Connolly, Daniel Pelka and Keanu Williams before him, Arthur was catastrophically failed by a child protection system that is supposed to keep children safe from those who would do them harm. At the time of writing, the murder trial for the sixteen-month-old baby, Star Hobson, allegedly brutalised then murdered by her mother and partner, is ongoing. Last year, at least 56 children were killed as a result of filicide, physical abuse, persistent cruelty or maltreatment; there may be more we don’t know about. These deaths generally do not happen out of the blue: they are the culmination of abusive patterns of behaviour that child protection systems, if working well, are able to spot. They should be preventable.

The price of preventing more child deaths and suffering is accepting that more parents may at some point come under unwarranted suspicion

Zoom out, and it’s clear children’s social care has been under increasing strain. There is of course the pandemic, which has interfered with the normal early warning systems that you hope would function for children suffering serious abuse and neglect at home: fewer home visits from professionals like health visitors, and children not in school. But children’s social services have also been undermined by a decade of local government cuts – an almost 60% reduction in central government grants – that have hit least affluent areas the most. Half of children’s social care services in England fall short of Ofsted’s minimum standards; in some areas, social workers are trying to cope with unmanageable caseloads. Cuts have consequences. Solihull, the area in which Arthur lived, failed an Ofsted inspection of its children’s services just months before he died.

But it’s not just funding cuts. The reality is that social workers have always tried to juggle conflicting roles in a society that reacts with righteous fury when a child is murdered in the most awful circumstances, but which also rails against child welfare professionals poking around where they are not wanted. Social workers are charged with helping vulnerable parents to look after their children, signposting them to support services that have become increasingly thin on the ground in the last ten years; their remit is also to step in and investigate when neglect and abuse are suspected. Abusers can be very good at covering their tracks and playing on the sympathy of others. The price of preventing more child deaths and suffering is accepting that more parents may at some point come under unwarranted suspicion. That may feel uncomfortable and unfair, but it is a cost of keeping children safe that societies must swallow.

Abortion rights in the US

For decades, legislators in conservative states in the US have chipped away at women’s constitutional rights to abortion even though they’ve been recognised by the Supreme Court since the 1970s, by introducing regulations and restrictions that make it effectively impossible for abortion clinics to exist in their state. Since President Trump established a Republican majority on the Supreme Court, they have upped the ante further, introducing unconstitutional laws that impose time limits so stringent they effectively ban abortion, in an effort to get the Court to reopen the issue of the constitutionality of abortion bans.

Now Mississippi has been taken to the Supreme Court over its law to ban abortions over fifteen weeks, even for rape and incest survivors. The Court heard the arguments in the case in December, and is widely anticipated to undermine, if not overturn, the constitutional precedent set by Roe v Wade and Casey v Planned Parenthood: that US states cannot ban abortion before foetal viability outside the womb.

The consequences are unthinkable: millions of women being forced by the state to carry unwanted pregnancies to term in one of the world’s richest countries; others having to risk their lives for the danger and pain of a backstreet abortion. It would be an immeasurable step backwards for women’s rights in America, a dreadful legacy of a truly dreadful president. And it is a reminder that even as some countries move forwards in establishing women’s reproductive rights – Ireland legalised abortion for the first time in 2018 after a historic referendum – women can once more lose what they’ve gained.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist. She also presents Analysis documentaries for Radio 4

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