Social services have came under fire in court for ‘missing’ chances to save tragic Arthur Labinjo-Hughes before his murder.
Red flags about Arthur’s ill-treatment behind closed doors emerged during his murder trial, which saw his father Thomas Hughes, 29, found guilty of manslaughter and his ex-partner Emma Tustin, 32, convicted of murder. Both were also found guilty of child cruelty offences.
But could Arthur have been saved?
Arthur’s loved ones – including his grandmother and uncle – told the court they passed on their concerns to social services at Solihull Council and West Midlands Police two months before his tragic death in June 2020.
Pictures of his bruised body and a doomed home visit were two potential opportunities lost by authorities. Despite worries by his fearful family, social services declared Arthur was “happy and playful” and took no action.
Lawyers during the trial told the jury they “can’t trust” what social services said in evidence and added that “as far as investigations go, that wasn’t their finest hour.”
And Judge Mark Wall said of social services home visit to Arthur: “Are they people who went there and saw something but didn’t realise the significance of it and brushed it off? Or do they wish they had done more? The long and short of it is you know the bruises were there.”
Officers also closed a police log about Arthur’s suspected abuse as social services were investigating.
Social services said it was a “terrible tragedy”, with the circumstances surrounding Arthur’s death subject to an independent review.
While findings from an Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation are due to be published. West Midlands Police have also been approached for comment.
BirminghamLive has looked into four potential opportunities to save Arthur that were “missed.”
Social services referral and Arthur’s bruises
Arthur’s grandmother Joanne Hughes told the court she phoned social services to pass on her concerns about Arthur’s welfare in order to get authorities to intervene.
She told the court she took photographs of Arthur’s bruised back and offered to send them to social services – but she said they “didn’t want to see them”.
Arthur’s grandmother told the court she had concerns it was Tustin who caused the injury after the youngster told her he had been grabbed by his cheeks, shoved against a wall and called an “ugly horrible brat”.
A MASH (multi-agency safeguarding hub) referral was made on April 16, 2020.
Joanne Hughes did all she could to raise the alarm. She told the trial she was “concerned for my grandson, and indeed my son, because I deemed him (Arthur) to be vulnerable.”
The call related to bruises on Arthur’s back, concerns about Arthur, his dad and their relationship with Tustin, as well as Tustin being “coercive” and fears over her mental state.
The court heard that, during a home visit the following day, Solihull social worker Jayne Kavanagh said she could only see a “very faint” single bruise in the middle of Arthur’s back. That was put down to “boisterous play”.
She said saw the “majority’ of Arthur’s back, including his shoulders.
Ms Kavanagh told the trial she was unable to explain why the same injuries were not visible 24 hours after the pictures were taken by Arthur’s grandmother.
Ms Kavanagh viewed the picture of Arthur’s bruise a week after the home visit.
“I was really confused,” Ms Kavanagh told the jury. “I was in shock that these photos had been taken the day before.”
Joanne Hughes told the court she had previously warned her son that she would contact social services and had urged him to allow Arthur to stay with her.
“He said: ‘No he’s my son, he will be fine, nobody’s going to hurt him’. I said: ‘If that’s your final answer I will phone social services.”
Result:Missed opportunity by social services to match pictures to Arthur’s bruised back after family referral
Social services ‘threshold visit’ to Arthur at Tustin’s home
Solihull social worker Jayne Kavanagh and family support worker Angela Scarlett-Coppage visited Arthur on April 17, 2020.
The purpose of the visit was to see if the case needed to “come in” for a full social worker assessment, if it required an “early help” programme, or if there were ‘no concerns’ requiring no further involvement.
The pair were told Arthur and Tustin’s son had a fight with a boxing glove set, which resulted in both boys being hurt.
The young boys were spoken to together, but not individually, at Tustin’s home in Cranmore Road, Shirley.
A yellow bruise found on Arthur’s back was put down to “boisterous play”, with Arthur seeming “happy and playful.”
Ms Kavanagh told the jury: “I can only say what I saw. I saw two extremely happy, playful children with no injuries of concern. I take my job extremely seriously as a social worker.”
It was concluded there were “no safeguarding issues.”
Judge Wall told the jury of the social services home visit: “Are they people who went there and saw something but didn’t realise the significance of it and brushed it off? Or do they wish they had done more? The long and short of it is you know the bruises were there.”
Ms Scarlett-Coppage confirmed that Arthur’s dad Hughes declined an offer of early help programme and life story work – which would have meant help for Arthur explaining about his childhood and where certain adults were in his life.
Hughes felt the school was more supportive and “knew Arthur well”. She accepted the “case” was closed afterwards because Hughes “didn’t consent to the work”.
Arthur was also given the “unusual privilege” by his dad and Tustin of playing in the garden.
This left him “happy and content” when social services visited him, police said. Detectives believe his enjoyment “concealed his suffering” during the home visit on April 17.
Speaking after the case, Det Insp Laura Harrison, who led the criminal investigation into Arthur’s death for West Midlands Police, told BirminghamLive: “The police did visit Arthur, as did social workers, to understand the concerns raised by Joanne Hughes.
“There were also concerns for Emma Tustin’s mental state at the same time. So it was a combination of the two to investigate.
“But what that meant was it provided Thomas Hughes and Emma Tustin with another opportunity to manipulate the situation.
“So on the day social workers went out to visit, they allowed Arthur out in the garden to play for the day – a different type of treatment that day.
“So when a social worker did speak to Arthur he was quite happy and content because all of a sudden he was given something he hadn’t been allowed before.”
She added: “They’d (Hughes and Tustin) almost planned how they saw that visit go, what they were going to do and what they wanted Arthur to tell them as well. It shows the level of deceit.
“By allowing him to not stand in isolation and allowing him in the garden, I am able to say they scripted it for Arthur by encouraging him what to be able to say. He had a nice day that day.”
Result:Missed opportunity by social services to establish Arthur’s sufferingafter home visit
Arthur’s uncle contacts police about suspected abuse – but police log closed
Arthur’s concerned uncle Daniel Hughes logged onto West Midlands Police’s webchat to inquire what he could do about the safety of his nephew – but a police log was later closed.
Mr Hughes was given a case number and later spoke to a police officer about the bruise pictures on April 18, 2020 – the day after the home visit.
“I said I had photos of Arthur’s injuries. I didn’t believe if he had seen those injuries he would think he was OK,” he said.
“He reluctantly received the photos and said he would speak to his sergeant and get back to me. He never did.”
Pc Todd Bennett confirmed he had spoken to Mr Hughes, who expressed concerns about bruises to Arthur’s back. He said he was later “deassigned” from the case for a higher-priority incident.
Pc Bennett told the court that, some time after, he viewed the email with the photographs of Arthur’s back.
He said: “I consulted with my sergeant, Sergeant Norbury. I also put in the log that the photographs had been sent to me in order to make whoever picked up the log aware as I had been deassigned.”
But police later “closed a log” into concerns raised for Arthur’s welfare.
Sgt Lee Norbury, who authorised for the log to be shut, said he believed it required “no further role for force response” as social services were taking the lead on reports of abuse.
During the trial, he told the jury: “An investigation was still continuing with a different department. This investigation was already ongoing, there was nothing new I could see to add to that report.
“It was more expedient for the public protection unit or social services to contact directly.”
Sgt Norbury said he told the control room to phone social services. Prosecutor Jonas Hankin QC had asked him if he was “satisfied” the investigation into the concerns about Arthur had been conducted “thoroughly.”
Sgt Norbury responded: “I was satisfied there was an ongoing investigation and there was no further role for force response.
“My understanding was these were all things reported already and social services were taking the lead as a single agency.”
Result:Missed opportunity by police after log was closed
Tustin’s stepdad made referral to social services about Arthur
Tustin’s stepdad John Dutton told the trial he made an “anonymous referral” to social services because he felt Arthur was “in danger.”
He told the court his wife was aware and was “for it”, with contact thought to be in May 2020.
Mr Dutton was asked during the hearing if he had ever heard references about injuries to Arthur.
He told the jury “Yes. One Sunday, Tom came up, he said he had gone to town on him and when he done it, he went up into the shower and cried his eyes out.”
He said he took Hughes’ phrase “gone to town on him” to mean “belt the life out of him.”
Mr Dutton said Arthur had “lost a lot of weight” about six to eight weeks after the start of the first national lockdown.
Recalling the boy being disciplined by Hughes, he said: “I thought it was over the top the way he was disciplining him, making him sit at the table.”
He added: “The way he (Arthur) sat there, just sat there like a zombie. He didn’t say a word.”
Mr Dutton said it seemed Arthur did not want to live with his father Hughes.
“You could see he wasn’t happy with Tom, all he went on about was his nan, grandad and uncle Blake,” he added.
Result:Missed opportunity by social services after another referral made
What do the authorities say?
Speaking after the case, Stephen Cullen, the chairman of the independent Solihull Child Safeguarding Partnership, said: “This terrible tragedy has had a shocking impact on Arthur’s family and across the whole community.
“The tragic loss of a young boy in such terrible circumstances is dreadful. We send our heartfelt condolences to everyone affected.
“The circumstances around his death will now be subject to an independent review, the Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review – and clearly it would be inappropriate for the partnership to comment ahead of the findings of that review.”
Findings on from an Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation are also due to be published.
An IOPC spokesman told BirminghamLive: “Our investigation into contact West Midlands Police had with Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and the six-year old’s family prior to his death concluded in June this year.
“Throughout our investigation, all officers were treated as witnesses and we found no indication any individual behaved in a manner that justified disciplinary proceedings.
“However, we emphasised to the force the importance of sharing information as set out in the police service’s Authorised Professional Practice, and in inter-agency guidance.
“As a result of the criminal proceedings, we have not yet been able to share our report and its findings with family members, so it would be inappropriate to say more at this stage.”