Arthur is the latest name to be added to the tragic list of children’s names that has become seared on the public’s consciousness for the very worst of reasons. Arthur’s stepmother, aided and encouraged by his father, tortured this little boy to death behind closed doors in June 2020.
The circumstances of this six year old child’s murder are painful to contemplate, but they starkly demonstrate the absolute necessity for us as a society to work together to protect those who are vulnerable. Until the criminal case was concluded within the last few weeks, little was known, publicly, about this case, but now that the ban on reporting has been lifted, we have been deluged with images, as well as words, which tell a story that is heart-breakingly sad. But it is a story that also makes us angry; angry at the cruelty inflicted on a defenceless child and angry at the fact that opportunities may have been missed to intervene and save his life.
There is, no doubt, much more to be revealed about the actions and alleged omissions of the safeguarding agencies involved and the wide-ranging national review which the government has announced should bring clarity to some of these areas. However, there are a number of unique aspects to this case which should give us pause for thought and prevent us from rushing to judgment.
"lockdown allowed Arthur to ‘slip from the view’ of safeguarding agencies."
First, there is the fact that these events happened in the middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic and therefore safeguarding professionals’ ability to work with children and families was severely curtailed and many mainstream children’s services such as schools and family support centres were locked down, as highlighted in our recent research into safeguarding in Christian faith organisations before, during and post COVID-19.
The Children’s Commissioner has already publicly suggested that lockdown allowed Arthur to ‘slip from the view’ of safeguarding agencies. This is perhaps too simplistic a response, because, after all, the vast majority of abuse has always happened behind closed doors. Lockdown simply exaggerates the social isolation of many vulnerable children, as parents and carers are left to their own devices and their children left to sink or swim.
Another feature of this case which also appears unprecedented, is the extent to which Arthur’s harsh treatment at the hands of his carers has been exposed to the public gaze. Footage from a CCTV camera that had been installed in the lounge of Arthur’s family home was made available to the team investigating the murder and extracts of this have been released by the police. One effect of the release of such explicit material to the general public, has served to make child abuse more visible, in a literal sense, than ever before, and to cause a level of secondary trauma to those viewing it.
What should be our response to appalling cases such as this? Here are some suggestions:
- Beware easy answers. Child abuse is as old as humankind and promises to eliminate it are invariably broken. Human nature is fundamentally flawed and all our best aspirations fall short. It will take each of us to play a part and work together to see real change.
- Avoid the blame game. Now that Arthur’s carers have been convicted and incarcerated, it is all too easy to allow our anger to be redirected against the professionals who ‘failed to spot the signs of abuse’. Of course, poor practice needs to be called out, but safeguarding professionals have a very challenging job to do in a context of high risk and high blame.
- Try not to over-generalize. It's a minority of parents and carers who are abusive. The fact that these high-profile cases reveal a side to family life that is deeply disturbing shouldn’t mean that our view of family life in general becomes jaundiced.
- Resist feeling overwhelmed. Although this may be a natural response to such cruel abuse, it doesn’t help keep children safe. We need to use the energy generated by our anger to work for change. There are things that can be done to support those on the front line of safeguarding. They have a difficult job to do and need your support. They care for vulnerable children on behalf of all of us. Those of us who belong to churches and faith communities need to speak out on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and show solidarity with those who are on the front line.
"The Church in the UK can and must take every opportunity to play a part"
Last week, an open letter signed by 21 senior leaders from Christian denominations, safeguarding agencies and faith-based charities was sent to the Secretary of State for Education and the Minister for Children and Families, to pledge support and cooperation as the government launches its independent review into the case which will be led by the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel under its Chair, Annie Hudson.
The signatories to the letter highlight that the church has a “unique reach into communities” and “plays a vital role in the lives of children” and that they believe it is their “Christian duty to help ensure that children, particularly those who are or may be vulnerable, are heard, defended and protected from harm.”
Justin Humphreys, CEO of Thirtyone:eight, who coordinated the letter along with Dr Krish Kandiah, Christian social entrepreneur said “There are fewer tragedies that occur in society that are more painful to contemplate than the death of a child. When a child's life is ended by the selfish and cruel acts of another person, we ought to be troubled to the core. The Church in the UK can and must take every opportunity to play a part in preventing the abuse of any child it has contact with. Standing together and reaching out into our communities to help create safer places we can make a difference - maybe just for one child or maybe for many. This is what we are called to do.”
The full text of the letter can be found at thirtyoneeight.org/openletter along with a list of the signatories. People are being encouraged to add their names to the letter which they can do by following the link.