Star, 1, murdered by mum's partner after 'shambolic' social services response

14 December 2021, 11:21 | Updated: 14 December 2021, 17:23

Savannah Brockhill and Frankie Smith were found guilty over the death of Star Hobson
Savannah Brockhill and Frankie Smith were found guilty over the death of Star Hobson. Picture: Alamy/court handout

By Daisy Stephens

A woman has has been found guilty of murdering her partner's 16-month-old daughter after a campaign of horrific abuse that resulted in five referrals to social services.

Savannah Brockhill was found guilty of murder, and Star Hobson's mother Frankie Smith of causing or allowing the toddler's death, after she died from a cardiac arrest following months of physical abuse.

Following the verdicts at Bradford Crown Court, Anita Banerjee, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said Star had suffered "catastrophic" injuries and experienced "humiliation, cruelty and pain at the hands of those who should have protected her most".

"Brockhill has been found guilty of the murder of Star Hobson and Smith has been found guilty of causing or allowing her death," said Ms Banerjee.

"They were responsible for inflicting catastrophic injuries on a helpless young child.

"Throughout her short life Star was subjected to endless physical assaults and psychological harm.

"Instead of love and protection, she experienced a world of humiliation, cruelty and pain at the hands of those who should have protected her most.

"It is impossible to imagine how any parent or carer could inflict this level of pain and suffering on an entirely defenceless little girl. Our thoughts remain with Star's family, as they have been throughout."

The trial at Bradford Crown Court trial heard that Brockhill and Smith convinced social workers that bruising on Star was accidental and that complaints were made maliciously by friends and family who did not like their relationship.

The pair will be sentenced tomorrow.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was "shocking and heartbreaking", adding: "We must protect children from these barbaric crimes and ensure lessons are learned."

Star Hobson's great-grandparents warned social services "we don't want another Baby P on our hands" over fears for the toddler's safety but described the response as "shambolic".

Star's great-grandfather David Fawcett, 61, said his partner Anita Smith, 70, called social workers in May 2020, after family members told her Brockhill was "slam-choking" the toddler - lifting her by the throat and throwing her on a bed.

He said Brockhill was prepared for the subsequent visit and they were told that the social worker concluded: "It sounds to me like it's just malicious gossip so we'll leave it at that."

He added: "We weren't there. They never came to us. We never heard anything else."

Mr Fawcett said: "The next thing we heard the case was closed.

"Anita was shocked. She said, 'you'd have thought they would've come down to chat with us'."

Mr Fawcett confirmed their call was one of five referrals to social services in 2020.

He said: "Maybe you miss it with one, two... but five? I just find it highly unacceptable, especially as they didn't get back to us."

Another call to social services, from another of her great-grandfathers, was made just days before Star was killed on September 22 2020.

Full details of how these reports were dealt with by social workers did not form part of the trial of Smith and Brockhill, but some snapshots of agencies' contact with the toddler were outlined to the jurors.

Savannah Brockhill (left) and Frankie Smith have been found guilty of causing Star's death
Savannah Brockhill (left) and Frankie Smith have been found guilty of causing Star's death. Picture: West Yorkshire Police

The first call was made to social services in January by Smith's friend Holly Jones, who was concerned about how much she been asked to look after the toddler and about domestic violence between the couple.

Ms Jones told the jury that, later in the year, after Star accidentally bit her as she helped her eat, she was horrified when Smith responded by biting her young daughter's finger, making her cry.

The jury was told that social workers visited Smith and Star in January but the matter was closed after no concerns were raised by family members they spoke to.

The court also heard that Star's father, Jordan Hobson, contacted social services in June after he saw images of bruises on Star's face.

Police took her to hospital for an examination, despite Smith saying her daughter had hit her face on a coffee table.

The jury was told that the medical examination found the bruising was consistent with the account given by Smith.

Prosecutors said there was a further contact by a friend of Smith's mother at about the same time, but this referral was closed the next month.

On September 2, Star's great-grandfather Frank Smith contacted social services after seeing video of bruises on the youngster's face.

Social workers made an unannounced visit and Smith said Star had fallen down stairs.

Social services closed the case on September 15 after concluding the referral to be malicious, the jury was told.

Star was subjected to a campaign of horrific abuse
Star was subjected to a campaign of horrific abuse. Picture: West Yorkshire Police

The Department for Education said the death of Star Hobson was "deeply disturbing" and said it would "not hesitate" to remove children's services control from Bradford Council "if necessary".

A spokesperson said: "Star's death is deeply disturbing. It is a reminder of why we have taken action to strengthen how safeguarding agencies work together locally to protect children at risk of abuse or neglect - and why we will never hesitate to take robust steps to prevent tragic cases like this happening.

"There are clear systems in place to report serious incidents, which in Star's case led to a Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review. This is due to conclude in January and will mean its learnings can feed into the national review of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes' death commissioned this week by the Secretary of State.

"In the months since Star's death we have also appointed a commissioner to assess Bradford's capability and capacity to improve. The Secretary of State met with him urgently on Monday December 13 to discuss the progress of his work and whether the council should retain control of their children's services, ahead of his full report in January.

"On seeing that we will not hesitate to remove service control if that is what's necessary to drive rapid improvements."

A joint statement from safeguarding agencies in Bradford said they "deeply regret" missing warning signs in Star Hobson's case.

The statement was given by Marium Haque, interim director of children's services at Bradford Council, Helen Hirst, chief officer, Bradford District and Craven Clinical Commissioning Group, and Bradford District Commander Chief Superintendent Sarah Jones of West Yorkshire Police.

It said: "We want to say first and foremost that we're sorry for the death of Star. This was a child's life cut cruelly short.

"Two people have been brought to answer for their crimes - one has been convicted of murder and one of causing or allowing the death of a child.

"Anyone who has followed the trial will want to know what more could have been done to help protect Star. As agencies who have a joint responsibility to protect children, this has been at the forefront of our minds. Any death of a child, wherever it happens, is one death too many, but this happened in our district, in our community and has had a devastating impact.

"We are very aware as partners that there is much that we need to learn from this case. We have already put in place actions that will improve our practice so that we learn those lessons. But we need to fully understand why opportunities to better protect Star were missed.

"We must also learn everything we can from the awful murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. A national review has been established to enable this to happen. If we can contribute our learning to this review, we will do.

"We offered support and assistance to Star's family for what we believed their needs to be, at that given time, but we all deeply regret that not all the warning signs were seen that could have led to firmer statutory enforcement action.

"A Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review is being written by an independent author. This is almost complete and, now the trial is concluded, the review will be finalised and published in January 2022.

"It will provide partners and colleagues in our district and across the country with clear recommendations so we can better protect children in our care."