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Breaking the Cycle – Part 1 – Divining the Devil

Please note, this article contains details of child abuse, torture and murder.

Reader caution is advised.

It never gets easier to hear details of the death of a child who has been the victim of extreme abuse, torture, and neglect. The names of those children we do hear about are etched in the minds of the public, intrinsically linked with their smiling photographs – Victoria Climbié, Peter Connolly, Daniel Pelka, Ainlee Labonte, Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, Star Hobson – horrifically, the list goes on. Public reaction to these appallingly sad cases is, understandably, always that of disbelief and revulsion. That an adult, particularly a parent, or stepparent, could exact such cruelty on a child, is beyond the comprehension of most people. And yet, sadly, the children whose stories are so familiar to us are, quite literally the tip of a devastating iceberg. Although there are many factors that conspire to play a part in these horrific cases, blame ultimately must lie at the door of the abuser. Here, in part 1 of a two-part piece, I examine the psychology of those who commit these atrocities, and attempt to identify any patterns or overlaps in their lives and backgrounds, which could offer some clues to help determine with at least some degree of accuracy, those who are likely to become offenders of this kind, and thus prevent at least some future tragedies.

Please note, while I have included some details of the treatment of each child whose death is discussed here, I have tried to do so without sensationalism. I have included what I felt was enough to convey the magnitude of their suffering, but refrained from listing the full details, which, suffice to say, are more brutal than anyone would care to imagine.

It is perhaps one of the most difficult scenarios to picture. A parent, who by nature should feel nothing but love and protectiveness towards their own child, instead meting out vicious punishments upon their helpless little charge. Rather than feeding and nourishing them, instead starving and beating them, or force-feeding them unspeakable things. And just as shocking is hearing of a parent allowing a boyfriend or girlfriend to exact these brutalities on their precious child. It is hard to imagine the confusion, fear, and sorrow that a child who experiences such treatment must feel, bereft of love, and wondering what they have done wrong. However, such cases occur with more regularity than you might imagine. Data produced by the NSPCC reveals that on average, at least one child a week in the UK dies as a direct result of abuse or neglect, mostly at the hands of a parent or stepparent.

What we must recognise, however, is that the abuse which culminates in the death of a child is, very often, a phase in a recurring cycle of abuse, handed down like a tainted legacy, from one generation to the next. Abusers, however monstrous we find them in adulthood, are in most cases themselves the products of abusive or neglectful childhoods . It should come as no surprise that people who experience such abuse become adults without the skills to be caring, loving parents, as these skills are built from experience. Children learn as they observe and receive parenting, how to be kind, gentle, loving, and caring. Conversely, if they are instead the recipient of abuse, in any or all forms – physical, verbal, sexual, psychological – this becomes their own learned behaviour. Uncomfortable though it is, it must be acknowledged that for all the children whose lives become national news when they are so tragically killed, there are thousands who are surviving, or at least, living through, their abuse without intervention, suffering behind closed doors. These children, then, their entire childhoods spent in fear and misery, devoid of love and affection, may become the next generation of damaged adults, ill equipped for providing a loving home for their own offspring, and with the potential to perpetrate the same abuse they have experienced on their own children – and on it goes.

In addition to the lack of learned parenting skills, there is another issue which effects abused and neglected children, and which compounds the problem as they grow into adulthood. Care and affection are essential for normal brain development, and brain scans reveal that in children who have not had these needs met, severe underdevelopment of the cortex can occur. There is a marked difference between the unabused child, and the abused and/or neglected child, with the additional finding that abused children’s brains are significantly smaller than their properly cared-for peers. Crucially, the cortex is the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, and it has been documented that damage to this part of the brain can illicit not just poor impulse control, but also episodic aggression. There is, then, good reason to suspect that a person who exacts abuse on, or neglects their child, may have an underdeveloped brain, which could be a significant factor in their behaviour.

Tracey Connolly, the mother of little ‘Baby P’ Peter, is quite literally the poster girl who illustrates the perpetuation of the abuse cycle. Tracey’s own childhood was one of extreme neglect and physical abuse, by her mother, until she was eventually taken into a reform school under the care of Islington Social Services. Her birth father, who had left the family home prior to Tracey’s second birthday, was absent. Another man was present in the house as Tracey grew up who Tracey called dad, but at age 12 her mother told her that this man was not, in fact, her father. Tracey eventually married a man 17 years her senior, Peter’s father, in her late teens, before giving birth to Peter. The couple split up soon after the birth, however, and Tracey was soon to move her new boyfriend, Steven Barker, into the council house she lived in. Peter was already on the radar of Haringey Children’s Services, but Tracey was able to hide from social workers the fact that Barker had moved into the property. In fact, social services were entirely unaware of his existence and involvement in little Peter’s life. What followed is difficult to hear. While Barker and his brother carried out a campaign of terror on the little boy over the next few months, Connolly sat idly by, amusing herself with heavy drinking and online pornography, untroubled by the horrendous, sustained abuse that the two beastly men were inflicting on her son. The council house, which was to become little Peter’s torture chamber, was a pit of filth, with human and animal faeces on the floor and an infestation of fleas. Peter passed away on 3rd August 2007, aged just 17 months, his tiny body unable to endure any more of the brutal abuse.

Six years prior to Peter’s death, a two-year-old girl named Ainlee Labonte was killed in her family home in Plaistow, London, after sustained abuse and neglect. After their arrest, each parent blamed the other, and it was not possible to determine if one, or both, were responsible for the horrendous injuries on the poor child, which included cigarette burns, scalding, hitting and starvation. Whichever scenario is true, both appear to have had a hand in the horrific treatment of the child, either as abuser or enabler, and it is inconceivable that one or other would not have known what the other was doing to the little girl, whose injuries were abundant and profound. Ainlee’s mother, Leanne Labonte, was herself the daughter of an alcoholic single mother, who reportedly beat her on a regular basis. She was also the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a stepfather, which began when she was nine, and traumatically and confusingly for any child, her mother subsequently blamed Leanne for the sexual abuse and the breakdown of the marriage. There were additional reports of further sexual assault, in the form of forced sex with an unnamed family member, when Leanne was 12. Proving the cyclical nature of these lives of abuse, tellingly, Leanne had written in her diary of suspecting her partner, the child’s father, Dennis Henry of sexually abusing their daughter. But rather than confronting Henry, and saving her child from him, in a chilling mirror of the response of her own mother to her sexual abuse, Leanne, too apportioned blame to her tiny child, writing that she was “beginning to hate them both”.

Emma Tustin, who killed her partner’s little boy, six-year-old Arthur Lubijno-Hughes, in June 2020, had already, at the time Arthur and his father moved into her home in the West Midlands, had two of her own children removed from her care. Prior to the little boy’s death, he was subjected to a sustained regime of torture, starvation, and verbal abuse at the hands of Tustin. Arthur’s father, Thomas Hughes, appears to have been an entirely willing participant in his son’s appalling treatment, there were text messages between the pair in which they dehumanised the little boy, and made suggestions to each other of ever more brutal acts to carry out on the poor child. Not that Tustin appears to have needed much encouragement. Throughout Arthur’s ordeal, the two of Tustin’s own children that remained in her care were not treated to the savagery that poor Arthur experienced. In fact, she would exact cruelties such as feeding the other children McDonalds while Arthur was made to stand and watch, while he himself was literally starved. While her childhood history has not been revealed, those who knew Tustin prior to her relationship with Arthur’s father, Thomas Hughes, describe Tustin as a woman with ‘no maternal instinct whatsoever’, and conjecture that her motive for having four children was one of financial benefit and attention for herself. She showed a pattern of behaviour whereby she repeatedly isolated her male partners from family and friends, before using cunning and manipulation to ‘suck the life’ out of them. All these traits are highly suggestive of a wholly inadequate upbringing.

That the adults in each of these cases were able to inflict such suffering on the children is a stark indicator of the abnormality of their minds. And there is another element to all of these abusers’ behaviour which serves to reveal this even further. This lies in the reports of how the bodies of Peter, Ainlee and Arthur were found when emergency services attended the scenes. Peter was lying in a cot in the mother’s squalid council flat, blue, and wearing just a nappy. Ainlee was laid out on the kitchen table, in an equally filthy flat. And Arthur was dying on the ground after Tustin’s final and fatal assault to his body, where his stepmother took a photograph of him which she texted to his dad. These were not distraught parents, holding their children, crying, and begging them to wake up. No sadness at all was expressed by any of the parents in these cases. Instead, a sickening kind of self-preservation kicked in, as the parents tried, in each case, to explain away the injuries on the children. Tracey Connolly, Stephen Barker, Leanne Labonte, Dennis Henry, Thomas Hughes, and Emma Tustin all failed, however, in their best efforts to deflect the blame, and all were convicted for their dreadful crimes.

As evidenced in these three examples, the torture and abuse of children is so often carried out by a couple working in tandem, whether both carrying out the physical abuse, or one doing so while the other witnesses, permits, and even encourages. As an interesting side note, I have been able to provide far more detail about the women in each case than the men who were in equal parts responsible. Perhaps this says something about the way in which society views perpetrators of crimes against children, depending on their being a woman or a man. I could find out little about the early lives of Steven Barker, Dennis Henry, or Thomas Hughes, prior to their relationships which ultimately ended in the death of the poor children. However, it is not a leap to suppose that they too had similarly neglectful and unfulfilled childhoods.

Acknowledging that these perpetrators experienced childhoods that were completely inadequate is, of course, not to absolve them from responsibility for their despicable crimes. Not at all. But there is a possible explanation as to why some victims of abuse perpetuate the cycle, while others manage to break it. It is, I believe of note that another common factor amongst many of those who become offenders is a propensity to manipulation, deception, and cunning, enabling them to lie with impunity to social workers and other authorities who might otherwise intervene. And, although it is possible that these traits may also stem from the treatment they were subjected to in their own upbringing, it is also conceivable that they do not. Perhaps individuals who by nature do not possess these kinds of characteristics, are those who are able to remove themselves from the hamster wheel of abused becoming abuser, and prove themselves as caring, decent parents to their children, despite having been subjected to cruelty themselves. Perhaps it is the predisposition to behave with cunning and manipulation, combined with the learned history of abuse, that creates a potential abuser. The ‘perfect storm’ is completed by the union of two such individuals, when both mother and father, or parent and stepparent are complicit in the abuse, torture, and neglect.

What we can tell, then, using these examples, is that a pattern does emerge, in the histories of these abusers, of an inadequate and abusive childhood, which has likely caused brain underdevelopment, and these factors are compounded by a personality prone to manipulation and deception. The final flash point appears to be the meeting of two such people, a tragic kind of folie à deux. Children who are the products of these relationships, or find themselves living amongst them, are clearly in very real and present peril. The ‘homes’ that they live in are often dirty and unsanitary, as in the case of Peter and Ainlee, and shockingly, each of these unbelievably inadequate households in the three examples of this text were at various times visited by authorities, and the children already on at risk registers.

Breaking the Cycle – Part 2 – Lessons Will be Learned, will examine whether there are ways that the various agencies who have official responsibility for child safeguarding on a broad level could use these patterns and warning signs to identify and monitor with far more vigilance the children in the care of such individuals. It will look, too, at whether these agencies are currently fit for purpose, given how many cases continue to occur on an annual basis, and given what we have learned above of their prior knowledge of all these children preceding their deaths. It will also look at the responsibilities of individuals within such organisations, and ask whether lessons are ever learned following these tragic cases of abuse, neglect and murder, and if the provision for children at risk is in the least bit adequate.

This piece is dedicated to all those little people whose lives have been taken away at the hands of adults who should have loved and protected them. Those whose faces we recognise from their photographs in the press, but also those anonymous children, whose beautiful faces have not found their way to the front pages. I am sorry that you were not shown the love you deserved in your earthly lives. May you all rest in peace, little ones.

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Andrew Pollock
Andrew Pollock
11 févr.

I myself was a victim of physical, emotional and sexual abuse throughout my childhood at the hands of an alcoholic mother and throughout the foster care system. Now at 49 years of age after a few failed relationships I find myself living alone with no hope of ever being loved and cherished, the thing we all crave , it is a daily battle to see any point in existing at all.

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