Children Heard and Seen

No Stone Left Unturned

Following the tragic and harrowing death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, there has been much scrutiny on how the authorities managed to let him slip through the net. This blog looks at one of many ways in which he, and other children, have gone under the radar – one that is once again evading attention.

The harrowing death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes has been national news in recent days after the conviction of his father and step-mother for manslaughter and murder respectively. Much has been said about the failings of the authorities in their duty of care for the child, as well as how lockdown exacerbated these failings, as well as the abuse Arthur suffered.

A BBC News online article currently featured on the front page of their website asks, ‘What were the opportunities missed to save Arthur Labinjo-Hughes?’ In one of several Daily Mail articles covering the story, four key moments where this tragedy could have been prevented by the authorities are highlighted. Similar articles on the failings of the authorities appear in The Sun, i News, and ITV News. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said there was an ongoing review that would look at local safeguarding and included police, social care, and health and education professionals in the area. A former Children’s Commissioner has spoken out about children ‘slipping through the net’, highlighting a lack of coordination and data sharing.

Whilst there is no denying the opportunities missed highlighted by these outlets, one key aspect is overlooked in all this coverage. Many outlets refer to Arthur having been ‘placed’ in the care of his father following his mother’s incarceration, with Sky News and The Sun, among others using this phrasing. The connotations of this are that there was a decision made by a third party, presumably the authorities, that, following the imprisonment of his primary caregiver, he would live with his father. The Daily Mail claim that the decision ‘would have been made by a family court’.

However, the family courts will not have been involved. The decision regarding where the child lives after a parent is incarcerated is not decided by the family courts but by the family members that are left behind. Research on maternal sentencing decisions by Shona Minson highlighted that when a child is separated from their mother because of intervention through the state due to neglect or abuse, the child’s interests are the foremost consideration, with the child represented by lawyers and a guardian. However, when the separation occurs due to the mother being sentenced, children do not have any representation and no one has responsibility for the child. This lack of support, Minson argues, represents a breach of duty to protect children from discrimination under Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989.

It is possible that the court will not have even known of the existence of Arthur at the time of sentencing. That this has not been mentioned by any of the major UK news outlets, or the Prime Minister and former Children’s Commissioner, further highlights the invisibility of children impacted by parental imprisonment. A report by Crest in 2019 found that during a parent’s journey through the criminal justice system there are multiple opportunities for the children of prisoners to be identified, but, currently, at no point does the system consider if there should be the child’s welfare. The former children’s commissioner speaks of a lack of joined up data and this could not be more pertinent than for children with a parent in prison – there is no statutory mechanism to identify and thereby offer support to children impacted by parental imprisonment.

Boris Johnson said on Friday that there would be ‘no stone left unturned’ in finding out what went wrong. At Children Heard and Seen, we passionately believe that the mossy underside of this stone desperately needs to see the light of day.