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Two unpalatable truths about familial homicide society must face

Practice educator and former child protection social worker Dan Taylor gives a reality check

Dan Taylor

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 9 December, 2021

The murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes by his step-mother is a painful reminder of the cruelty that some parents and carers are capable of, and presents a major challenge to the person-centred values that are at the heart of the social work profession.

If social work is about change and anti-oppressive practice, which it must be, how do we reconcile that with the suspicion and lack of trust required to detect abusive parents and carers, protect children from such a fate, and achieve justice on their behalf?

Is it possible for any individual social worker to combine within themselves at an equally effective level, the two personalities needed for child protection social work – the supportive, therapeutic social worker, and the forensic, ‘police-minded’ social worker? Should we therefore be involving the police at a much earlier stage when there is suspicion of abuse?

Clearly, there are more questions than answers, but we must accept two facts relevant to this case:

1. The number of children who die through parental abuse and neglect has stayed fairly constant for about 30 years, despite the tightening of procedures, and improvements in social work training. This suggests that there are a sad (and tiny) minority of parents who will hide their abuse and succeed in doing so however hard local authorities try and prevent them from doing so.

2. Despite the finest academic minds of the profession devoting months, if not years, of their lives to trying to find a formula that will predict which parents will harm their children, no such formula has been found.

Child protection social workers therefore have no knowledge base to draw on that will enable them to prevent severe harm occurring, apart from their own practice knowledge, their assessment of the individual family, and intuition.

Their assessment of the family will hopefully be informed by observation, including the child’s behaviour, and the voice of the child. But it will still be subjective and therefore reflect their prejudices and values.

This may sound fatalistic, but I would argue that it is actually being realistic. And we need to be able to persuade society to take a more realistic view of what social workers can and cannot do.

At the same time, I think it is reasonable to have a look at social work training, and how it could be improved. In particular, too few social work students are able to experience a statutory placement, which in the words of Social Work England gives them opportunities to undertake “statutory social work tasks involving high risk decision making and legal interventions”.

How can we expect newly qualified social workers to manage child protection cases from day one (as some local authorities do) when they have had no training to prepare them for this role?

There is also not enough post-qualifying training since the Post Qualifying Child Care Award ceased to be offered by most universities.

Finally, if there is to be a public enquiry into this tragedy, is it too much to expect that it will be chaired, or at least advised, by someone with social work experience?