With the awful fates of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and toddler Star Hobson still vivid in memory, we have another terrible child killing: two-year-old Kyrell Matthews, who died after sustaining “blunt force trauma” over a period of weeks, according to a local safeguarding review, at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend.
Kyrell, of Thornton Heath, south London, died in October 2019. He had suffered 41 rib fractures, internal bleeding, and injuries and bruising to his liver and his penis. On Friday, his mother, Phylesia Shirley, 24, and her then-partner Kemar Brown, 28, were found guilty, respectively, of manslaughter and murder.
As with Arthur and Star, the brutality and cruelty was not only horrifying, but captured on the perpetrators’ mobile phones. The court was able to hear harrowing evidence of the abuse and Kyrell’s terrified screams. As before, the abusive adults seem not just sadistic, but pathetically immature and self-absorbed.
Could anything have been done to save Kyrell? After the court reached its verdict, the Croydon Safeguarding Children Partnership published its review of the case, setting out in detail the last few months of the little boy’s short life. On several occasions, it found, police and social workers and other agencies missed chances to intervene.
A major opportunity was missed in May 2019 when Kyrell, then aged 20 months, was taken to hospital with a serious head injury. Shirley said it was caused when her son jumped from a sofa. Clinicians assessed it as accidental, although they had remaining doubts. Croydon social services agreed to make a home visit to check up on Kyrell after his discharge.
Once Kyrell was back at home, however, social services cancelled the visit because it was not a priority. As the review notes, “the threshold for a referral had not been met”. Social workers dismissed the hospital safeguarding team’s concerns as “professional anxiety”. This was a mistake the review said, but it was made, it noted, “in a bigger systems context”.
What this jargon phrase blandly describes is a crisis unfolding in, but not unique to, Croydon: a children’s services department overwhelmed by the weight of referrals, with no clear and consistent thresholds for intervening to protect a child. Social work, the review found, was “crisis led” and focusing on “only the highest priority referrals”.
Indeed, Croydon children’s services had been labelled “inadequate” in a devastating inspection by Ofsted two years previously. There had been some signs of progress by the time of Kyrell’s death, but it was still dogged by high staff turnover, lack of clarity over safeguarding thresholds, and a “legacy of drift”. Croydon council would declare itself bankrupt a little over a year later.
It was not that Shirley received no help from the authorities. Family support services were lined up for this vulnerable single mother with a history of trauma and depression. She would agree to professional help, then ignore it. Her parenting was chaotic and inconsistent. She regularly missed GP appointments for Kyrell, and went for months without seeing a health visitor.
In July, the police were called to a domestic dispute at her home after a passerby heard Shirley shouting “stop hitting my face”. No action was taken after Shirley denied she had been assaulted. The police also failed to notify children’s services: had they done so, police records would have revealed her new partner was Brown, a man with convictions for assault, possession of weapons and domestic abuse.
The police visit, the review, found, was a missed opportunity, as well as the last time Kyrell was seen by any professional. Three months later he had been killed. As the senior crown prosecutor Samantha Yelland put it: “The two people who were supposed to look after him the most were those that caused injury, and in the end his death.”