'Don't demonise social workers over Arthur case' - Birmingham Children's Trust chief's plea

Group of people on street all holding blue balloons
Image: Jonathan Hipkiss/ Birmingham Mail
Published: 9th Dec 2021

Chief executive of Birmingham Children's Trust, Andy Couldrick, says ripple effect following death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes will be far reaching.

Birmingham's social workers were 'flat out' through the pandemic, never letting up on seeing vulnerable children face to face even during lockdown peaks.

Andy Couldrick, chief executive of Birmingham Children's Trust, spoke out in the wake of the shocking murder of little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in neighbouring Solihull, the horrific prolonged agony endured by the little lad up to his death triggering a desperate quest for answers.

Arthur's case occurred under the jurisdiction of Solihull Children's Safeguarding Partnership but the ripples from the case extended into the city and beyond, he said.

As a national review into the case got under way, Mr Couldrick outlined the measures taken in Birmingham to address the potential isolation of vulnerable kids living in volatile homes and out of school during lockdowns.

And he urged people not to demonise social workers who had put themselves at risk during face to face home visits when few other agencies were doing so, and who were sad and appalled at the circumstances surrounding Arthur's killing.

"I am so proud of our staff," he said.

The impact would likely include a surge in cases referred by anxious families, teachers, police officers and health professionals, a possible exodus of frustrated social workers and a potential downturn in job applications, just when they are needed more than ever, he added.

Mr Couldrick spoke to Birmingham Live following the conclusion of the shocking case of little Arthur, who was tormented and killed by his father Thomas Hughes and girlfriend Emma Tustin.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is calling for an urgent review of their sentences and has announced a major probe into the circumstances.

Plea not to demonise social workers

Mr Couldrick urged that the review looked at the role of social workers in the case and more widely - but not in isolation.

"It feels often like there is a gravitational pull to suggest it is the sole responsibility of the social worker in a case, when we are part of a wider multi agency service and approach, each with a part to play.

"It's really important we challenge ourselves and hold ourselves to account as a whole system. If social workers have got it wrong, we must hold our hands up," he added.

Asked if he feared other children could have been enduring harm on this scale in Birmingham during lockdown, Mr Couldrick said robust emergency measures had been in place, while social workers in the city had never stopped visiting families and vulnerable children, even during the peak of the virus.

"We can only know about situations reported to us, so yes, naturally I would worry there are children in a city the size of Birmingham who are completely under the radar, are not being picked up.

"But in terms of children we know, we have worked really hard to build relationships with our partners, spending a lot of time working with partners in the NHS, police and schools, to say 'we are here and open and want you to tell us about the children about whom you are worried'."

Social workers did not stop visiting families at home from day one of lockdown - and did so without fuss, with barely any recognition or praise, and without receiving claps on the doorstep, he added.

Schools, police, health visitors and midwives were also galvanised to keep in touch in person with mums to be, babies and young children, and to share information through clear multi agency reporting systems, he added.

They also joined forces to support families in local areas - from organising food parcels, delivering laptops for schoolkids (7,000 in total), carrying out child protection checks and investigating new referrals.

This all happened alongside work to support unaccompanied child refugees, children in care and lead initiatives on youth violence and safeguarding.

 

Intensive training for leaders and a focus on random and focussed checks led by independent reviewers had helped improve services before the pandemic and these proved their worth during it, he said.

The city also had a robust escalation policy in place to ensure nobody who flagged a concern was ultimately left 'holding the baby' - metaphorically or literally. "If a teacher or police officer or anyone else has expressed a worry about a child to us and don't think we have responded well there is a formal process to escalate that, which leads directly into my inbox," said Mr Couldrick.

The legacy of lockdown has been a 'greater sense of collaborative intent between professionals,' he added.

The Trust is currently rated 'requires improvement' after an Ofsted inspection in 2019 - the first time it had been out of special measures in a decade.

Two short inspections that followed have confirmed the Trust's continued improvement.

Each time regulators noted, after a review of a snapshot of cases and interviews with social workers: "No children are seen to be left in situations of risk or harm".

Preet Kaur Gill, MP for Edgbaston Birmingham and a former frontline children's services manager in the city, has written to Mr Couldrick for assurances and information about the local response to the pandemic and lockdown.

"Like everyone who followed Arthur's case, I was horrified to hear of the abuse he suffered which led to his murder...

"It angers me when I think of all the services the Government have cut.

"We need to have an honest conversation on what this means for our most vulnerable children. Services are stretched to the absolute limit, particularly early years which provided vital support to many families. However, we must learn the lessons from this case."

She has asked for assurances about what action was taken locally to identify children who were absent when lockdown ended, and what was done about it.

"It’s unclear what advice the DFE provided to schools in respect of those children that had not returned to school....it is vital that we get answers to these important questions."

She has also asked to see data showing the number of absent children who received a home visit, and how many were seen alone if appropriate.

 

Become a social worker

One in five social worker roles (19%) in the city is currently filled with agency staff as Birmingham battles with other councils to attract staff into the profession.

This is a big improvement on previous years but is still 'too high', with cost implications and risks around continuity of care. "There are just not enough people wanting to come into social work; while six years is the average career length because it is so hard," Andy said.

"The public perception is shaped often by serious cases like this."

Birmingham social workers typically have a caseload of 16 cases at any one time - slightly better than the West Midlands average of 17 cases. The caseload reduces for social workers supporting children in care, whose needs are often more complex.

The Trust is currently advertising Social Worker and Senior Social Worker vacancies across the city. Visit the jobs website here.

Original story from Birmingham Mail