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Lockdown affected the way social workers could interact with children

Professor of Social Work Harry Ferguson comments on the tragic murder of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. What might this mean for the future of social work practice?

I'm sure everyone has been touched by news coverage of the appalling abuse and death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes at the hands of his father and stepmother. Arthur’s death has gone hand-in-hand with extensive commentary on the role of social work in apparently missing the abuse during assessment visits. There has been considerable blaming of social workers in the media; the Daily Mail, for instance, has pledged to hunt down those workers responsible. A national review of the case has begun. 

It was a relief to hear the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, state in his speech in parliament that the abuse of social work as a profession—and individual social workers—is wrong and should not be tolerated. This matters because there is considerable evidence that the scapegoating of social workers in high profile child death cases going back several decades has created a risk-averse, blame culture. As the work of our colleague Dr Matthew Gibson shows, shame and its avoidance drives the system. This has led to defensive practice and big increases in the numbers of children being taken into care.

It's infuriating to see the Prime Minister saying that "no stone will be left unturned in our efforts to find out why this happened to Arthur," when over a decade of Tory austerity has caused huge cuts to early help, therapeutic and social work services. This has contributed massively to increases in child poverty and the mounting challenges vulnerable families face.  Our colleague Debbie Innes-Turnhill eloquently argued on BBC Newsnight (3rd December) the ways in which these systemic pressures erode the time available and diminish the capacity of professionals to identify abused children like Arthur. It’s getting harder and harder to keep children safe.

Even if these structural and systemic factors are taken into account, the question remains: how is it possible for social workers to be present with children like Arthur and miss what appears to us now, with hindsight, as obvious signs of dreadful abuse?   My ethnographic research has shown how the psycho-social dynamics of encounters between often angry and controlling parents, and the impact of fear and anxiety on social workers’ states of mind, are crucial to how they do not see the abused child who is in front of them.  In Arthur’s situation we can add to this the fear and anxiety arising from Covid-19 and social distancing. Arthur and his father moved into the home of his stepmother at the start of the first Covid lockdown in March 2020; he died in June 2020 towards the end of lockdown one.

The UKRI/ESRC-funded research by myself, our colleague Laura Kelly and Professor Sarah Pink from Monash University, Melbourne examined the impact of Covid-19 and social distancing. It interrogated the capacity of social workers to keep children safe and help families during the first nine months of the pandemic in 2020, and is proving timely in informing policy, practice, and media coverage.  As I argued in the Guardian, our findings suggest it is likely that Arthur was in part let down due to the restrictions of social distancing and school closures caused by Covid and lockdowns. Child protection workers did not have the same capacity and freedom to get close to children to find out what their lives are like in the ways they could pre-pandemic.

When children are killed like this, seemingly without protection, the reasons are always complex. Above all, I think it's a time to be reminding our students and social work practice colleagues of all the good that social work does day in, day out, in keeping children safe and helping families.