Updated: Mar 10
Star Hobson – May 2019 – September 2020
Arthur Labinjo-Hughes - 2014 - 2020
Alfie Lamb – 2015 – 2018
Daniel Pelka – 15th July 2007 – 3rd March 2012
Khyra Ishaq – 2001 – 2008
Baby P – 1st March 2006 – 3rd August 2007
Victoria Climbie -2nd November 1991 – 25th February 2000
These aren’t the only children killed by their parents / legal guardians in the last twenty years but they’re certainly the ones whose names we’ll never forget – these are the ones where...
The System failed…
These are also the child deaths where a female has been convicted for their involvement with the crime.
It’s interesting to me that when I read the press coverage of these tragic and sickening crimes, there’s little emphasis put on the role of the female care-giver – she’s always portrayed as mentally ill, or as much a victim of the male perpetrator as the child; it’s always in these situations that The System will be much more in the spotlight than the female perpetrator – there’s a real reluctance to apportion real blame to the woman – there’s no reluctance whatsoever to apportion blame to the male perpetrator – a fact borne out in the wildly differing sentences handed down. The murderess of Alfie Lamb, for example, was only sentenced to two years, seven months while her partner was sentenced to seven years at least. Neither is a suitable or appropriate sentence in my opinion, but it’s almost universally true that the men get longer sentences than the women.
It is right that the system’s job is to protect children from harm but it is also an absolute truth that that responsibility lies firmly first and foremost with the child’s parents / legal guardians, so why, in cases like these, do the public rally against the system, not the hateful women who enabled their charges to be murdered while they watched on?
Because it’s uncomfortable.
Because there’s an entire professional sector whose continued success (and importantly for them, funding) relies on women only ever being portrayed as victims of male violence.
Because we’re socially conditioned to believe there’s something very unsettling about the idea that a woman could be more of a risk to a child than a man…
Sugar and spice and all things nice, right?
Unfortunately for the 21st Century Feminist, this argument doesn’t really play out – not if you entertain all of it at least. The upside to 21st Century propaganda is that it’s easily spread and there are millions of women around the globe who, quite rightly, are horrified at the statistics of male violence against women and take this information as gospel. They don’t finish the thought because they’re lucky enough never to have suffered significantly.
If we look at the whole picture that surrounds this argument though, it becomes very clear, very quickly that the information is incredibly cleverly angled.
If we accept the argument that only men are to blame for all violence against women and children, how do we explain the reality that a huge number of young men who are incarcerated for violent crimes grew up in single-parent households, overseen by women?
The absent father argument is hollow – how can someone who is absent, be responsible for something that requires such real, literal presence as parenting?
One can’t parent a child from elsewhere – if the ‘deadbeat dad’ took off when the child was young and was never seen or heard from again, how can they be responsible for the day-to-day stuff that gives our children their sense of right and wrong? How can their absence be blamed for the twisted morals and lack of empathy required to commit such heinous crimes? Yes, being abandoned makes people angry, but there are millions of people who grew up in ‘broken homes’ who don’t go round killing, maiming, torturing and abusing children – myself included.
For context, I was bought up by my father, it was my mother who took off and refused to tell us where she was…. But she must’ve had a good reason, right? Mothers don’t abandon their kids without one, do they?! As far as I can tell, the ‘good’ reason my mother left was because she’d ‘got bored’ with being a wife and a parent and she’d discovered a new life that she preferred.
But, sugar and spice though…
It’s also true that biological mothers have legal parental responsibility for their children from birth. Since the early 2000’s it’s been true that fathers who present themselves at the child’s birth registration will be added to the birth certificate.
Not a single one of the children that have hit the headlines because they’ve been killed in the last twenty years was living with both biological parents.
In Star’s case, she was living with her biological mother and her mother’s female partner. It’s said that there is some definitive evidence of Star’s mother being a victim of Domestic Abuse – the partner who left her bruised and then posed for selfies with her, is a woman too…
In Arthur’s case, he’d been placed with his biological father following his biological mother’s incarceration for murdering her ‘abusive’ partner.
In the cases of Alfie, Daniel, Khyra and baby P, the children were living with their biological mother and her partner.
In the case of Victoria Climbie, she was living with strangers, having been sent away by her biological mother, ironically for the chance of a better life.
Logic says then, that its most common for children to die under the supervision of their mothers.
A worrying statistic tells us that most child deaths are infants under the age of one, usually killed by their mothers NOT their fathers. There is of course, a caveat to this explaining how horribly disturbed these women must have been…
As a professional, I don’t doubt or question the reality or impact of post-natal depression or serious mental illness, but that must always be weighed fairly against the argument that, as already mentioned, there are millions of people who suffer from mental illness who don’t murder their children.
As a relationship and Domestic Abuse specialist,
the truth for me is relatively clear – these women chose their partners over their children. If they hadn’t, they’d have got the children out and to safety. At best they were complicit to the abuse, at worst, they were directly involved with it.
I understand completely the dangers and difficulties of escaping a truly abusive relationship – it’s never as simple as just leaving, and it’s an inescapable truth that one’s risk of being killed by an abusive partner increases exponentially at the point of separation.
Having said that though, in every single one of these cases, there was professional involvement – The System had been triggered somehow. If these women really were being subjected to such horrific abuse from their partners and were genuinely concerned for the welfare of the children in that household, they’d have spoken up, wouldn’t they?
They’d have tried to find help.
They’d have tried to protect the children.
They’d have tried to protect themselves…
Certainly we know that in most of these cases, the women lied.
They told The System that everything was fine and dandy and went to great lengths to cover up their involvement with the abuse.
These women, most with legal responsibility for their children, hoodwinked the system to enable the continuation of abuse. They weren’t frightened of their partner, they weren’t frightened of the repercussions, they were frightened of losing their power.
All abuse is about power, remember?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting for a second that the men were all innocent bystanders in these events – far from it; any human that can sleep soundly at night after repeatedly ramming a car seat into a child, or starving a child to death, or using a child as an ashtray to extinguish their cigarettes, or beating a child literally within an inch of its life, is clearly a VERY sick puppy – male OR female.
What I am saying though, is that we need to wake up and challenge the narrative that men who are abusive are ‘just’ abusive – no question, while women who are abusive have their horrific and despicable behaviour excused, time and again.
PEOPLE are horrific and despicable. They make choices about how they behave, and yes, there can be extenuating or mitigating circumstances, such as mental health issues or Domestic Abuse, but in the cases here, the women behaved in EXACTLY the same way as the men. They lied, denied, obstructed, abused, manipulated and callously manoeuvred themselves to ensure THEY didn’t get found out.
To ensure they could continue the abuse.
That’s not sugar and spice and all things nice, is it?!
That’s perpetrator behaviour and there’s a whole professional sector screaming out about the massive impact of perpetrator behaviour on women and children, isn’t there?
Let’s call them perpetrators too then, shall we?
Let’s hold these women, who enabled the abuse of (mostly) their own children, as accountable for that as happily and easily as we’ll hold the men.
Let’s forget their genitals and name their behaviour; if we wrote down the behaviours demonstrated by each abusive adult WITHOUT naming their gender, how different would those sets of behaviour look? I can guarantee you that the first question asked would be about gender…
In the year or so since the Domestic Abuse Bill was updated to include children as victims in their own right, I’ve seen very little in the way of new services or changed narratives to support this from the women’s sector – if they acknowledge that children come in both genders, they’ll have to acknowledge that children of both genders are VICTIMS and that doesn’t sit well with the rhetoric that men must be perpetrators and women may only be victims, does it?
If you’re interested, you’ll see that those women only services are being very quiet about Arthur’s death - they’ve no statement to make, but when a man kills a woman or his children? They’re all over it. It’s worth noting that as said earlier in this piece, children under the age of 1 have the highest rates of homicide of ANY other group in the UK. It’s also statistically true that the majority of babies killed by a parent, are killed by their mother.
It’s time for change. For all those children who’ve lost their lives due to one or both parents making choices about how they treat their children. For all those children living at home with abusive parents who are only ever one missed meal or misstep away from death. Those children need us to be more realistic in our view of child abuse.
Daniel Pelka needed his headteacher to not believe his mother when she said that a medical professional had said the child should be starved! That headteacher went public to say she felt she’d done everything in her power to help Daniel – except, of course, challenge her own bias which told her that mothers don’t do that sort of thing so what she tells us MUST be true…. I can’t help but wonder how differently that case would’ve played out if a man had waltzed into a school and told a headteacher – with no medical evidence to support his claim – that a medical professional’s advice was the starvation of a child…
A quick word about The System:
I did many years working for Social Services in what was then called the DIAT (Duty Initial Assessment Team). Our job was to assess incoming referrals and undertake Section 47 (Child Protection) investigations. I’ve been involved with more of those than any reasonable or sane person should ever see.
The System is only ever as good as the humans feeding the information in. Humans, are, by their nature, human! They have personal feelings, beliefs, and opinions on stuff and those things are so intrinsic that it’s really difficult to ‘leave them at the door’, even if that’s the expectation.
In my day at Social Services, this is how a CP referral was assessed:
Referral Received – The System has a time limit within which to respond because there is a suggestion that the child is at ‘Significant risk of imminent harm or danger’ – that’s the statutory line in the sand for assessing risk since Lord Laming’s investigations into both the deaths of Victoria Climbie and Baby P.
Agency Checks – requests are sent by Social Services to other interested professional parties for their thoughts – these go to Police / Health / Education. Any concerns raised by police, health and education are factored into Social Services decision-making. In other words, if no concerns are raised by any of those other statutory agencies, Social Services will assume that there’s no further concerns about the child beyond the referral in front of them.
Worth mentioning here just how imperative Education are to this system – they are the ONLY professional agency who see a child DAILY and it’s the ONLY ‘professional’ environment which isn’t forced or false. Every time a small child gets changed for PE, there’s an opportunity for a quick visual body-check for marks and bruises in unusual places. Education are also the most likely agency to have an ongoing relationship with the child’s adults.
Let’s also take a minute to ask ourselves whether an abusive parent is likely to take their child to see the GP; especially covered in NAI’s! (Non-Accidental Injuries).
A decision is made between the Police and Social Services as to whether there is a criminal element to answer and consequently whether a ‘joint visit’ (Police and Social Services) or a ‘single-agency visit’ (Social Services only) is required.
Visit undertaken - Social Workers are told whatever they’re told by the family and if they have no other evidence that harm is being caused, what choice do they have but to take the family’s word? They’re not medical professionals or Police Officers, they have no right to ask the child to strip and parade for them so they can check for bruises, and they have less LEGAL RIGHTS over that child than its parents do.
If Social Services wants to remove LEGAL responsibility from parents, they have to go to court, produce EVIDENCE and gain a court order… It’s not a quick or easy process because The System is set up to SUPPORT the family structure, not decimate it – innocent until proven guilty, right?
Depending on whether a single or joint-agency visit was undertaken, another meeting is held to decide what happens next. Social Work decisions are made on the ‘Balance of Probability’ (That’s showing my age!) – in other words, do the professionals think that the risk to the child is greater by leaving them where they are and adding support (cheap), or by moving them away (expensive).
It’s VERY rare that there’s blatant evidence of abuse – abusers are smart cookies and they don’t want to get caught, do they?! It’s also rare that a child will make a clear disclosure – either they’re too frightened of the repercussions, or they don’t understand that what’s happening to them isn’t ok – it’s ‘normal’ for them after all.
If the decision is made that the child IS at significant risk – and that decision must be made with EVIDENCE, not gut feelings, opinions, or personal judgements – then a Safeguarding Plan will be put around the child and their siblings. The system for reviewing and managing Safeguarding Plans is a whole different blog, frankly!
It’s at this point, usually, that the world cries out,
“They should have done more!”
“The System is broken and they let that poor child down!”
“They don’t protect the children who are at risk, so what’s the point of Social Services?!”
“How many more children have to die before they do something?!”
Who are “THEY”?! Social Workers? Social Services? The Police? The Education System? The Health System? The Government? YES! The Government, Jess! It’s THEIR fault! They’ve taken all the money!
WRONG. Just. Plain. Wrong.
The ONLY people with legal responsibility for keeping children safe, are their PARENTS.
Boris Johnson or Kier Starmer didn’t beat Arthur or feed him so much salt his innards were pickled, his step-mother did that with the acquiescence of his biological father.
Rishi Sunak or Rachel Reeves didn’t tell the Social Workers a bunch of falsehoods when they asked, Arthur’s step-mother did that with the acquiescence of his biological father.
Yes, the system is overwhelmed and underfunded.
Yes, Social Workers are human and humans make mistakes – sometimes mistakes with terrible consequences, but more often than not, they get it right. How do we know this? Because we DON’T hear daily stories of dead children. If the system is as overwhelmed as we’re to believe (and it is), then surely we have to accept that up and down the country, hundreds of referrals are being made to Social Services EVERY DAY, yet thankfully, stories like Arthur’s are the tragic exception, not the rule.
Yes, more should have been done to prevent Arthur’s death, but unless we’re going to equip Social Workers with crystal balls and X-Ray vision, they’re going to have to continue to rely on the information shared with them by the family.
Surely, the quickest and most efficient way to help the system recover isn’t to throw more money at it, it’s to convince parents and legal guardians that they shouldn’t be abusing their children! The System can only be overwhelmed because of high numbers of referrals, can’t it? And each of those referrals implicates a person with legal responsibility for harming a child, not a Social Worker or Politician.
The majority of children removed from a parent while I was working for Social Services, were removed from their mothers. They weren’t removed from their local MP or a Social Worker in their local area, they were removed from their mothers. Mothers who, most often, agreed to what was called ‘voluntary accommodation’ – in other words, they didn’t insist that the Local Authority went to court to gain an order to remove the children, they signed them over voluntarily…
Most did so for the right reasons and because they acknowledged that help was needed to protect the children, but some were perfectly happy to give up their children on the basis that they could always have more…
The System has no legal right to prevent a woman reproducing again and no legal entitlement to assume that she’ll do as bad a job with the new child as she did with the last. Ask yourself, if you’re a parent, how would you feel if a Social Worker turned up on your doorstep and said,
“We’re taking your child away because someone’s grandma’s neighbour’s nephew has sent us a photo of a bruise on a child’s back and told us that it’s your child and you caused the bruise.”
You’d be furious, wouldn’t you? You’d tell them that they can’t just remove children on a spurious piece of gossip that, in court, would be classified as third-hand hearsay… You’d insist they had evidence, right? That they could PROVE the abuse beyond any reasonable doubt – because that’s our legal standard. You’d want to see the evidence and, if couldn’t be produced, you’d accuse the Social Worker of being unprofessional and vindictive and you’d make a very serious complaint, wouldn’t you?
Hindsight is always 20:20 though, isn’t it…
In our new, shiny, 21st Century world of acceptance and awareness of unconscious and conditional biases, please take a moment to check your biases around abuse. Abuse is a personal choice, and people come in all shapes and forms, don’t they?
Sleep in eternal peace now, beautiful angels – nobody can hurt you anymore.
Challenge your biases. Not all women are sugar and spice… By unquestioningly believing that women can’t possibly be abusive, we condone their abuse of children and empower and enable them further.
Remember that every day that you wake up and DON’T hear about another dead child, Social Services have done their job well enough.
Understand The System before you criticise it. If you’re a professional who works with potential Child Protection issues, get in touch with your local SSD and ask if you can go and spend a day seeing what they ACTUALLY do, instead of just applying your own personal standards and opinions to their decision-making.
Before you do number 3, get yourself a copy of, and read, cover to cover, the document Working Together to Safeguard Children. If you work in Education, I’d suggest that you read both Working Together to Safeguard Children, AND your own version, Working Together to Safeguard Children in Education – you can download them here: Working together to safeguard children - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
Take some time to learn how to write a decent referral. 99% of the referrals turned down while I worked at SSD were refused because the required / desired OUTCOME wasn’t clear. If you want SSD to ‘do something!’, you need to tell them WHAT you want them to do and, most importantly, WHY. Just writing vague stuff like ‘improved parenting’ or ‘general concerns about presentation’ or, my personal favourite (and this one came up at least 974 times EVERY WEEK) ‘looks unkempt’, doesn’t give anybody anything tangible to work with. Go back to the personal comparison… If a Social Worker phoned you as a parent and said, “Someone random has judged your child to be dirty and unkempt so we’re coming out to assess you.” you’d be (rightly) furious!
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