We owe it to Arthur Labinjo-Hughes not to be afraid to ask difficult questions – we need to know how it was missed

WHAT is harder than hearing a distressed six-year-old boy repeating that nobody loves him or will feed him is knowing his stepmother and soon to be murderer is the one recording it, along with a catalogue of clips of his torture at her and his own father’s hands. 

Harder still, is that father even typing, let alone actually texting, the words “just end him” in the weeks before his son’s killing. 

My reaction to this horrific and heart-breaking case was as much as a human being and a parent, as it was Commissioner.

It beggars’ belief any parent could inflict such a relentless campaign of violent abuse. But that’s not enough.

As Children’s Commissioner my job is to stand-up for the rights of children within the system.

What haunts me most about this case is that Arthur knew what was happening to him.

He wasn’t a small baby who could not seek help. Arthur could articulate what was happening, but there was no one listening.

I was appointed as the fourth Children’s Commissioner in March after a career working with children.

My role is to protect the rights and amplify the voice of children, especially those in or around social care.

That’s a lot of children, more than 1.5m children in England have had a social worker at some point in their life, but we need to have a system that responds to each as an individual and understands what they need.

Keeping children safe is everyone’s business and during Arthur’s tragically short life he will have been known to health professionals, teachers and social workers. Yet, despite this, and his uncle’s repeated warning signs, no one understood what was happening to him.

There was a whole system around Arthur, but no one saw and understood him. Arthur actually refers to an uncle in one of the recordings of his suffering his twisted killer made.

That uncle and others repeatedly raised concerns, at one stage being warned they’d be breaking lockdown rules and liable for arrest if they visited the child to check themselves in frustration at what they saw as a lack of action.

That Arthur’s last horrific months of life coincided with the two people responsible for his death moving in together and the start of the first national Lockdown is a tragedy of timing, but it would be unhelpful to say Lockdown caused this.

It didn’t but it weakened many of the normal checks that mean such extreme cases of malevolent child abuse are spotted early enough to avoid tragedy. Serious safeguarding incidents – where a child is killed or seriously injured – went up by nearly a third during lockdown.

I spent the years before I became Commissioner in schools passionate about keeping the children, I was responsible for having brighter futures, but also safe Let’s remember the role schools often play in picking up the first signs something is badly wrong, which is I am so passionate that schools should not close again unless absolute necessity shuts everything down. Last to close. First to open. 

There are lots of complex issues in children’s safeguarding – resourcing, data-sharing and oversight.

When tragedies like this occur all of these things have to be examined. But at the centre of this is something much simpler: seeing, engaging and listening to each child.

How was Arthur so invisible and voiceless in a system meant to protect him? As Children’s Commissioner I run a helpline – Help at Hand – for children in the care system.

My team has been working every day throughout the pandemic and recovery, speaking to children and parents, social workers and those working with children, to support them in these difficult times and make sure their voices are heard.  

The biggest failures always occur when no one has listening to the child, understand what was happening to them and what they needed.

My job as Children’s Commissioner is to make sure children are heard in each of this system, that we have a system which does not serve its own ends but serves these children. Sometimes a system gets so complex it can’t focus on the basics.  

One lawyer pointed to the fact that at the time of his death Arthur had a bruise for every day of the Lockdown he spent holed up in a hell with two horrific adults. Day after day of abuse.

We owe that little boy not to be afraid to ask difficult questions, do the difficult complicated things and not to be afraid to make big changes, because it’s vitally important in answering a simple question: how on earth did we miss this?

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