Hamzah Khan’s death through starvation in 2009, the discovery of his mummified body two years later and the recent conviction of his mother, Amanda Hutton, has brought a horrific case of neglect and abuse to public attention.
Judge Roger Thomas QC said it was “as bad a case of unlawful killing of a child by a parent as it is possible to imagine”.
From what we know, Hamzah was starved to death by extreme neglect from his mother, who was his sole carer. At the time of his death in December 2009, the four year-old child was still wearing a size 6-9 month baby-gro and a nappy. His mummified remains were found by a police support officer following complaints from a neighbour in 2011 about littering. That police officer raised the alarm when she saw the entire house was knee deep in rubbish.
We also know that Hamzah’s father, Hutton’s long-term partner Aftab Khan, was subject to a restraining order after he admitted to battering Hutton in 2008. Months after the injunction, he made complaints to the police and social services about Hutton’s neglectful parenting. For the next three years Hutton managed to elude the authorities. She claimed that Hamzah was living with relatives hundreds of miles away.
Hamzah’s oldest brother Tariq, 24, was the only other adult who knew about Hamzah’s death. He claims Hutton had threatened to kill the other children if he went to the police. He says she put a knife to the five year-old’s throat. He has been charged with preventing the burial of his brother and given a suspended sentence.
Hutton ticks a lot of boxes for being a public hate-figure. Not only is she a neglectful single mother with an alcohol problem.
She also had seven other children by an Asian father. And perhaps worst of all as far as the tabloid press is concerned — she fraudulently claimed child benefit.
Perhaps more shocking than the death itself, is the fact that this woman was so isolated that she managed to slowly kill her child over a period of three years and then keep the child’s death a secret for a further two years while five other children scratched out a survival in her house.
This woman was so isolated that she only came to the attention of another human being when the rubbish and filth that had filled her home had reached a point where it was spilling out the door. Neighbours spoke of their amazement when police brought five children out of the house. They say they had never seen the children before and did not know they were living there.
Amanda Hutton is undoubtedly a loathsome individual. But individuals make choices and act within a broader social context. So however difficult and painful it is, this situation deserves to be understood. Even if our attempts at understanding are partial or inadequate, we should not fear those attempts.
What sort of world creates such a person? What sort of world do we live in where such horrors are possible?
It would be simplistic in the extreme to say that the death of this child was a result of the capitalist system. Many millions of people live in this society and do not become child killers. But this child killer does live in a capitalist society and that society did create the circumstances in which this atrocity was possible.
The background to these events are that Amanda Hutton was abused for many years by her partner. She suffered from post-natal depression. She had sole responsibility for six children. She was lonely and alone. She maintained her pitiful existence on a cocktail of anti-depressants, alcohol and cannabis.
The Jeremy Kyle-esque witchhunt orchestrated by the bourgeois press does not allow us consider any of these circumstances.
Right-wing moral hysteria is a lot of noise to prevent us from thinking clearly about the deeper questions raised by this case. It is designed to create the impression that we live in an otherwise perfect world which is spoilt by a few moral degenerates. It puts a barrier to any deep understanding.
It equates understanding with excusing. It directs our attention towards mob vengeance and is a dog whistle for calling up all sorts of rotten prejudices about single mothers, ethnic minorities, and the poor.
Mob mentality ensured that Hutton was sentenced to 15 years in prison. This sentence serves nobody. This woman can hardly be deemed a risk to anyone — except herself. A short period of incarceration to draw a line under these events and start some rehabilitation may be justified. But what is 15 years in prison going to achieve?
There will be a serious case review, but its conclusions will be inadequate. They will inevitably conclude that there was not enough cross-agency information sharing and that social services should be bolder in intervening.
Socialists have different answers. Our program addresses itself to the problems of poverty, depression and social isolation. We have very concrete demands for free childcare, well-funded children’s services, play facilities, adult education, decent parental leave entitlements, funding for community services (leisure centres, parks, and self-organised groups that can help stop social isolation). Such things can ease the pressure on parents and lessen the isolating effects of child-rearing.
On top of these concrete demands we have broader aspirations for cultural, societal change. We want to abolish loneliness. We want everyone to have access to productive work and social wealth. We want to break down the divide between “work” and “life”, between productive and reproductive labour. We want to create a new culture based on human solidarity, meaningful endeavour and abundance.
It is almost certain that abuses and atrocities will still occur in the socialist future. But there was something shockingly easy about Hamzah Khan’s death that passes a damning judgement on our society.
A socialist society, built on an international movement of working-class solidarity, would be a safer place for children. We owe it to this small child to fight for this future.