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Social workers admit they can’t keep children safe after murder of Finley Boden lays bare failing care system

A review into the murder of Finley Boden on Wednesday concluded that safeguarding practice was ‘inadequate’ and ‘professional interventions should have protected him’  (PA Media)
A review into the murder of Finley Boden on Wednesday concluded that safeguarding practice was ‘inadequate’ and ‘professional interventions should have protected him’ (PA Media)

Social workers have warned they are unable to keep vulnerable children safe as the case of a murdered 10-month-old baby highlights the failings of a struggling care system.

A damning review into the murder of Finley Boden on Wednesday concluded that safeguarding practice was “inadequate” and “professional interventions should have protected him”. The child’s parents, Shannon Marsden and Stephen Boden, inflicted 130 injuries on their son before he fatally collapsed at his family home in Derbyshire on Christmas Day 2020, just weeks after being placed back into their care.

The criticism comes as exclusive research conducted by The Independent and the Social Workers Union (SWU) lays bare a social services sector “on the brink of a breakdown”.

Figures show 92 per cent of social workers surveyed believe children would be better protected if caseloads were lighter, with 58 per cent reporting their caseloads are unmanageable. There has been no improvement in this perception since a previous survey in 2022, carried out not long after the country had emerged from the pandemic.

The SWU said more funding was urgently required to tackle the problem and that pressures faced by social workers had not been addressed.

Have you been affected by this story? Email tara.cobham@independent.co.uk

Shannon Marsden and Stephen Boden inflicted 130 injuries on their son before he fatally collapsed at his family home in Derbyshire on Christmas Day 2020, just weeks after being placed back into their care (Derbyshire Police/PA Wire)
Shannon Marsden and Stephen Boden inflicted 130 injuries on their son before he fatally collapsed at his family home in Derbyshire on Christmas Day 2020, just weeks after being placed back into their care (Derbyshire Police/PA Wire)

John McGowan, SWU general secretary, said: “There has been an ongoing systematic failure to address the pressures on social workers. Yes, look at what happened in this tragic individual case, but don’t judge the entire profession from any potential review findings.

“What is urgently required is more funding. Most social workers just don’t have enough time to spend on individual assessments due to work demand.”

The survey found 40 per cent of the 716 respondents believe appropriate action was not taken after concerns were raised about a child they had been dealing with over the last 18 months, while a third (29 per cent) said more than five cases were responded to inadequately.

One union member said they worked with a 17-year-old parent who was refused care several times due to overwhelming caseloads and a shortage of qualified social workers – and said her baby consequently suffered significant injuries due to neglect.

The tragic cases of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes highlighted the need for change in the children’s social care system, triggering three reviews – one of which found that relatives’ warnings were “too often” disregarded by local services – with the government subsequently launching a landmark strategy to fix the sector last year, although it admitted to The Independent this week that action has not gone far enough.

Star Hobson, who died from ‘utterly catastrophic’ injuries at her home in Keighley, West Yorkshire, in September 2020 (PA)
Star Hobson, who died from ‘utterly catastrophic’ injuries at her home in Keighley, West Yorkshire, in September 2020 (PA)

In the case of 16-month-old Star, her family warned social workers that she would be “another Baby P” and said that “little Star’s going to finish up in a star in the sky”.

The young girl was beaten to death by Savannah Brockhill, her mother’s girlfriend in September 2020. Her mother Frankie Smith was also found guilty of causing or allowing her death.

In the case of six-year-old Arthur, his paternal grandparents raised concerns with authorities about his bruising in April 2020. Less than two months later Arthur died after sustaining an “unsurvivable brain injury” while he was at home with his father’s partner Emma Tustin in the West Midlands.

The average caseload for children’s social workers was 16 in 2023 and 16.6 the previous year, according to government figures, but a poll conducted by Community Care in 2022 found an average caseload of 25.6. According to one local authority’s policy, social workers should usually hold a maximum of 22.

As social workers face the “immense” joint pressures of rising caseloads, squeezed budgets and a lack of comprehensive training, Abigail Gill, associate head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said vulnerable children and families are being left without the vital safety net of the care system.

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes suffered an unsurvivable brain injury after what prosecutors claimed was a ‘campaign of cruelty’ (PA Media)
Arthur Labinjo-Hughes suffered an unsurvivable brain injury after what prosecutors claimed was a ‘campaign of cruelty’ (PA Media)

The data reveals close to nine out of 10 (86 per cent) social workers are suffering from stress because of work, up from 82 per cent in 2022. There were around 109,900 social workers in the UK in 2023, a drop of almost 15,000 from 124,500 in 2021, according to estimates from Statista.

Mr McGowan said: “The data highlights a profession on the brink of a collective breakdown. Working conditions are not improving, the mental health of social workers is suffering, and the resources and support for them to do their jobs properly are missing.”

He called on the government to improve funding for public services, otherwise, he said he fears the risks to those in need are “dangerous and severe”.

Salford and Eccles Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey said: “It’s clear from these alarming findings that nearly a decade and a half of Tory austerity has decimated our social services. Vulnerable people have faced the devastating consequences of this austerity, and are unable to get the support they so desperately need.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Social workers play a vital role in protecting the most vulnerable children and families, and total spend on children’s social care increased to £12.2bn in 22-23, up from £10.8bn the year before.

“There are now record numbers of child and family social workers – but we know there is more to do. We will continue to work with the sector on earlier intervention, continuing to improve staff numbers and increasing the number of children’s home places across the country.”