The tragic murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes has dominated recent headlines.

Last week, millions paid their respect. People commented on their sadness and shock. Football clubs held a one minute clap. All this, for the boy that no one cared about.

One question lingers in the aftermath of the tragedy: Who is to blame for Arthur’s murder?

About a boy

Arthur’s father and his partner held all the power after his mother was sent to prison. As we now know, he was treated maliciously and subjected to routine abuse at the hands of both of them. The courts have since pronounced a guilty verdict, signalling that the blame for Arthur’s death lies primarily with his carers.

But even though his father and stepmother clearly occasioned the boy’s premature death, there is also the question of why social workers and the police failed to step in and put a stop to his suffering after they had been alerted but various family members.

Who’s to blame?

A famous quote once reflected that those who witness suffering but do nothing to stop it are just as bad as those who inflict it. This quote is now attributed to the 19th-century philosopher, John Sturat Mill, who more precisely stated that:

‘… Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing’.

In Arthur’s case, the state missed several pleas from the family to help the child. His grandmother, Madeline Halcrow, found a suspicious bruise with an even more suspicious story. She phoned social services. They did go to the house — concluding that there were ‘no major concerns’. Later, another relative rang. This time the alarm call was dismissed entirely due to the fact that someone had recently been to the property. After nothing was done, two more family members rang the police. Again, their concerns were largely ignored. A few weeks before Arthur’s death, his teacher rang social services after he never returned to school. This too was disregarded. Three weeks later, Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was dead. He was six years old.

Although the state cannot be held directly responsible for any of this, neither can it be said that their lack of involvement didn’t contribute to Arthur’s death. By dismissing, ignoring, and refusing to see what was in plain sight, those involved allowed a boy’s suffering to go unnoticed.

Not a one-off

The tragedy of Arthur is not a standalone incident. This has happened many times before. The cases of Daniel Pelka, Victoria Climbie and Baby P are just a few examples that echo a similar story to Arthur’s.

In fact, the death of Daniel Pelka carries hauntingly familiar details. His mother had moved in with her boyfriend. Subsequent abuse followed, which included being isolated from the rest of the family, starved, beaten, being fed salt, and being made to do squats as punishment. He was also the only child in the household to be abused while his siblings bore witness to the horrors. When his school notified authorities of the boy’s extreme hunger and bruises, he was given medication for worms and discharged. Social services had been visiting since 2008. They believed his mother who claimed she could take care of him. Daniel died a few months short of his fifth birthday from severe head trauma. His mother, who is now also deceased, searched online about salt poisonings the day before his death.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the high-profile cases that are troubling. It is estimated that each day, at least one child dies from abuse in the UK.

The trouble with social services

Social services are not the ones on trial for these child deaths. But their part is undeniable. In the case of Arthur, they could have removed him from his violent domestic environment. They could have made repeat visits to the house to check for new injuries. Most revealingly, they never spoke to Arthur to ask him if he was alright. This was a fatal mistake and one that keeps recurring every time social services believe the lies told by these children‘s parents.

Apart from Arthur’s parents, only the state held any power over his wellbeing. This power was arguably never exercised to save him.

Two sides to every story?

The hardest thing about a murder case like this is that many intricate factors lead to a child being overlooked by the state.

It’s true that social services never picked up on the distress calls from Arthur’s family and teachers. But then we were, and still are, in the middle of a pandemic. Schools were closed. The abuse spiralled. The police didn’t intervene because social services were involved. Hospitals and healthcare teams were not seeing patients. The pandemic meant that most of the family could not visit Arthur, making his abuse invisible.

Nevertheless, this latest case highlights a tragic pattern of failings within our social welfare system. This is especially true for the most vulnerable in society. To change this, we must forgive those in authority who didn’t do enough so that next time they can spot the signs and do their jobs better.

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