Dominic Lawson: Social workers do not question the devastating danger of modern broken families

Fairy tales almost always have a happy ending. Perhaps the most heartwarming thing, especially at this time of year, Bantu season, is Cinderella season.

There are countless versions of the base story, going back to the 9th century, with a Chinese tale on a similar theme, also including a magical shoe befitting only the victim heroine.

Each version has an “evil stepmother” – always a cruel and dominant character.

Each version of Cinderella has an “evil stepmother” – a cruel and ever-dominant character

Arthur Labingo Hughes, six, was murdered by his father's partner, Emma Tastin

Arthur Labingo Hughes, six, was murdered by his father’s partner, Emma Tastin

But this winter, we’ve seen two relentlessly terrifying real-life versions, with six-year-old Arthur Labingo Hughes and Star Hobson, just 16 months old, both murdered by their biological parents’ partners.

The star was beaten to death by her mother’s friend, Savannah Brockhill, while Arthur was murdered by his father’s partner, Emma Tastin. Both of these killers took over the house.

In the case of Tasten, there was a particularly agonizing echo of the novel Cinderella and her “Ugly Sisters” indulged while her stepdaughter agonized.

Emma Tastin has been imprisoned for life for a minimum of 29 years

Emma Tastin has been imprisoned for life for a minimum of 29 years

When Judge Mark Wall sentenced her to a minimum of 29 years in prison, Judge Mark Wall said one of the most troubling aspects was that Tustin’s two children were “living perfectly happy lives in that house” while Arthur was “being subjected to unimaginable abuse”.


This case, in particular, reminds me of the fate of Maria Colwell, who was beaten to death at the age of seven by her stepfather William Kebbell in a council house in Brighton in 1973.

Maria’s biological mother gave birth to several children from Keppel after the death of her first husband.

These offspring were favored by the couple, and the court heard how Kepple bought his biological children ice cream and forced Maria to watch them eat it while she was starved (described as a “walking skeleton”).

Maria died of her injuries, which included brain damage. The country was shocked and disgusted with what appeared at the trial, including the inadequate social services that day in failing to protect this brutalized child, despite at least 30 calls from neighbors to report what they witnessed.

The Hobson star, just 16 months old, was beaten to death by her mother's friend, Savannah Brockhill.

The Hobson star, just 16 months old, was beaten to death by her mother’s friend, Savannah Brockhill.

A public investigation was launched, which identified three main components: a lack of communication between the various agencies involved, poor training of social workers dealing with “children at risk”, and what has been described as “changes in the composition of society”.

After the commission’s report was published, countless articles declared that “this must not happen again.”

But similar cases kept happening again and, as a series of other public investigations showed, almost invariably involved the same failures by the authorities.

Savannah Brockhill beat the 16-month-old Hobson star to death

Savannah Brockhill beat the 16-month-old Hobson star to death

This is not to deny the basic point that only child killers deserve punishment.

Four-year-old Danielle Belka was another notable example of this horrific, familiar streak of abuse and official incompetence.

He was never looked after, even after his school in Coventry stated that he was emaciated and would be shown eating food from crates.

He was finally beaten to death in 2012 by his violent stepfather Marius Kryzolik, who was convicted of murder along with Danielle’s mother Magdalena Luczak.

Maria Colwell, then seven years old, in 1973, was murdered by her stepfather in Brighton

Maria Colwell, then seven years old, in 1973, was murdered by her stepfather in Brighton

Four years earlier, there was a ‘Baby P’ – Peter Connelly – who had left social services, despite more than 60 visits, to be beaten and mutilated by his mother’s sadistic friend, Stephen Parker.

A local GP reported seeing bruises on Peter’s head and chest within a month of Parker moving in with the baby’s mother in November 2006.

Parker has been consistently described as a “stepfather,” but the term seems completely inappropriate.

Not only was he not married to Peter’s mother, Tracy Connelly: He was the last parade of men moving in and out of that house, which really lived up to the term “shattered.”

However, if we use the word “stepmother” to mean any person who lives as a partner of the father or natural mother of the child, then a starkly clear fact emerges.

As all the cases I have mentioned demonstrate, infanticide is more likely to occur in such homes than in those where the biological parents remain with their offspring.


This was elaborated in peer-reviewed detail by two Canadian academics, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, in the 1994 paper, “Some Differential Features of Lethal Abuse of Young Children by Parents vs. Genetic Parents”.

After looking through decades of data, the researchers note: “Young children (ages 0 to 2 years) are at about 100 times greater risk at the hands of stepmothers than at genetic fathers.”

In homicides of children up to the age of five, they added, “the risk of homicide from fathers was about 60 times higher than that of genetic fathers.”

The study concluded that “the increased risks to children of a spouse cannot be attributed to biases in reporting or detection, nor to . . . poverty.

Paternity per se is a relevant risk factor. . . Relatively severe consequence of the fact that the genetic parental care [care for a child’s wellbeing] generally exceed those of the stepmother.

It should be noted that adoptive parents did not often appear like stepmothers in regard to fatal child abuse. The reason is that these parents made a conscious decision to raise children who were not biologically related to them.

Professor Daly coined a term to describe the phenomenon that he and his colleague comprehensively analyzed. He called it the “Cinderella effect”.

Although more than 90 percent of murderous stepfathers are male – while Cinderella’s “abuser” was the evil stepmother – the term applies mostly to the more violent sex.

Daly’s key point about the risks significantly greater than the stepfather is irrefutable—although, as he later noted, “there are people who desperately want to say it’s not.”

There are reasons for this refusal. One is that we all know stepmothers (and stepfathers) who are wonderful and care deeply for their partners’ children – just as we would also encounter a biological parent who treats his or her children horribly.


Another reason for denial is the so-called ‘non-judicial’ modern view that has refused to acknowledge the extent to which marital separation and the prevalence of transsexual relationships have, in aggregate, been a devastating threat to the well-being of many children.

Separating parents is easier than ever: but the consequences of broken homes are no less difficult to fix.

Although it is necessary, in this dismal context, to note that children are more at risk in homes where there is a so-called stepmother or father, than in those where the mother lives alone with her children.

But do our social workers, when visiting homes with a newly acquired “stepfather” (or stepmother, like the ex-guard Brockhill who murdered Star Hobson), make a fitting note of Cinderella’s influence?

Peter Connelly, aged 17 months, died in 2007. He was beaten and mutilated by his mother's sadistic friend, Stephen Parker

Peter Connelly, aged 17 months, died in 2007. He was beaten and mutilated by his mother’s sadistic friend, Stephen Parker

I put this to Lord (Herbert) Laming, whom I admire very much. Laming, 85, has led the public investigation into the 2000 murder of eight-year-old Victoria Clemby by her aunt and boyfriend, as well as the official investigation into how authorities failed to kill Baby B.

Laming replied, ‘I think you are on the verge of achieving something important. When I started my career in 1960, most families worked with a familiar structure.

Nowadays, families come in many forms. I suspect that social workers are now trained to accept the family structure as presented without question, and that in current practice the adults in a child’s life are invited to define their family – and this is accepted without question in an attempt to not – quick to judge.

I suspect that in many cases a detailed family history is not taken. I hope I’m wrong in this assumption, but the little evidence I have seems to make the point.

“In each of the recently reported cases, the family structure has raised many questions of great importance to the safety and well-being of the child.”

Unfortunately, I did.

These were real-life dates when no one lived happily ever after.

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