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BASW Statement: Ben Butler Conviction

BASW England is deeply saddened by the tragic death of six-year-old Ellie Butler and our thoughts are with her extended family, particularly her maternal grandparents at this time.

Ellie’s father Ben Butler was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday 21 June after he beat his daughter to death, eleven months after she was returned to his custody by the family court.

BASW England Manager Maris Stratulis stated: “This tragic case highlights the importance of social workers being recognised as the experts in their field, local authorities being listened to, the complexities of child protection work and the role of the judiciary and judicial processes. Sadly the death of Ellie also reinforces how deceptive, coercive and manipulative perpetrators of abuse can be in ‘masking’ the reality of their behaviour and gaining sympathy for their cause.

“The uniqueness of the case, the role of the media, the judiciary decisions and the difficulties and challenges associated with court direction in commissioning an independent social work assessment are all factors that raise concern about the limitations of local authorities in such circumstances.

“Of further concern is the fact that the welfare of Ellie was lost within the decision making processes as the parents, in particular the father, Ben Butler became the focus of attention – the welfare of the child must always be paramount and the primary focus in decisions about their care.

“Social workers must be recognised as the experts in their field, services must be child-focused in order for robust assessments to be undertaken and there has to be respect and understanding of each other's expertise across professions.

“On this occasion the local authority recommendation was not upheld with tragic consequences, but we must remember that it is only by working together, respecting professional expertise and ensuring good practice that we can effectively safeguard vulnerable children.”

Ms Stratulis went on to state: “The profession is currently facing significant change with the Children and Social Work Bill that is being progressed in Westminster and this case only serves to highlight the ever increasing concerns about the fragmentation of children's services and it’s potential to pave the way for greater privatisation and less accountability."

The serious case review (SCR), published in April 2016 stated this was an exceptionally unusual case highlighting the following factors:

  • The extreme level of avoidance, deception and resistance from the parents.
  • The role of the independent social work agency in the assessment and the management of the reunification of the children with their parents, and the exclusion of the local authority (Sutton Council) from this role.
  • The effect of the court judgement and exoneration, combined with the parents’ refusal of any voluntary engagement with support services meant that no intervention that might have made a difference was possible.

The review went on to highlight the significant lack of independent management reviews from the judiciary (who declined to provide this evidence) and the independent social work agency, Services for Children appointed by the judiciary.

Commenting on the case within the SCR Christine Davies CBE, Independent Chair of the Sutton Safeguarding Children Board, stated: “The serious case review concluded that the Family Court’s decision to exonerate Ben Butler of harming Ellie in 2007, combined with its subsequent order for agencies to be sent a letter to that effect, had a very significant impact on how agencies could protect this children from that point in time onwards.

“Ben Butler’s exoneration and the Judge’s statement about him being a victim of a miscarriage of justice had the effect of handing all the power to the parents. This coupled with the assessment made by Services for Children to support Ellie and her sibling to be cared for by their parents were critical factors.

“It was not possible for the serious case review to gain greater insight into the decisions of the family court, as the judiciary did not provide an independent management review of its involvement. Similarly, although Services for Children contributed to the serious case review, they were unable to produce an independent management review in line with statutory guidance.”