A father accused alongside his new partner of poisoning and murdering his six-year-old son took away his favourite teddy bear as a punishment weeks before his death, a court heard.
Thomas Hughes and his girlfriend, Emma Tustin, also allegedly forced Arthur Labinjo-Hughes to eat salt and endure months of “cruel” abuse amounting to torture, prosecutors have previously said.
Arthur died after his head was “banged repeatedly against a hard surface”, leaving him with an “unsurvivable brain injury” on June 17, 2020.
It is alleged Tustin carried out the fatal assault at her home in Cranmore Road, Solihull, while in sole care of Arthur, before photographing her stepson as he lay dying in the hallway, using her mobile phone.
Hughes, 29, and Tustin, 32, are also accused of multiple counts of child cruelty relating to incidents in the run-up to his death.
On Tuesday, Birmingham Crown Court jurors heard evidence from a special educational needs coordinator at Arthur’s school who said the youngster’s “behaviour had changed considerably”, by November 2019.
The change came about after Arthur was told his natural mother had been jailed, after being convicted of killing her new partner.
Aileen Carabine, special educational needs coordinator at Dickens Heath Community Primary School, confirmed Arthur had developed a “fixation with death and murder” at home.
She was asked by Mary Prior QC, representing Tustin, if “part of that fixation involved dad disappearing from his life, like mum had… Arthur being taken away and Arthur’s dad killing him?”
Ms Carabine replied: “Yes, that was mentioned.”
A teaching assistant also described how Hughes administered a “punishment” to the usually smiley child by taking away a favourite toy.
Sarah Turrell, the school’s social, emotional and mental health lead, said she found out about the incident while taking a session with the boy on March 11, 2020.
By that stage, Arthur was receiving support from the school after being told about his mother.
Ms Turrell said Arthur had used a visual “scale” in the session, used to monitor a child’s mood, and that “he’d actually scaled zero, which was really unusual”, indicating he was very upset.
She told the jury: “Zero… was quite a shock.
“The reason that he was zero was because daddy had taken his teddy off him.”
She added that the bear had been Arthur’s favourite.
“Obviously I was quite alarmed by that and it was something I would act on,” said Ms Turrell.
“So, I followed that up with a call to Mr (Thomas) Hughes to discuss that, to really ask further why that action had happened.”
She said: “The reason that Mr Hughes had done that was because in managing his behaviour, he felt Arthur’s behaviour was becoming more difficult.
“So I then went on to explain, or to share with Mr Hughes, that obviously wasn’t an appropriate way.”
“At that time, I was leaning towards maybe attachment difficulties… but I discussed with Mr Hughes how Arthur may be feeling because of mom being in prison, so this could be a reason he was presenting with more difficult behaviour.”
Hughes told Ms Turrell Arthur had been punished because “he’d been rude and unkind to her new partner”.
“He had taken the teddy from him as a form of punishment,” she said.
She added: “My advice to Mr Hughes was just to spend more time with Arthur, to reinforce his relationship with Arthur because of the relationship he’d lost with his mother, or the new relationships that were developing around him, to make Arthur be more secure.”
Ms Turrell said she “absolutely discouraged” Hughes’ response to Arthur’s reported behaviour.
She told Hughes “to reassure Arthur that he was loved by Mr Hughes, despite all the changes that were going on”.
In a series of communications with Hughes, after lockdown forced the school’s closure on March 18, 2020, Ms Turrell repeatedly asked after Arthur.
In a telephone call on on June 2, two weeks before Arthur’s death, Hughes “brought up a concern about Arthur’s behaviour”, as his son was “not getting on with the stepmom”.
She added that Hughes recognised the problem, telling her, “I think it would be better if we (Hughes and Arthur) just had our own place”. However, the move never happened.
During the call, she spoke to Arthur for “maybe a minute”, but it was mainly “yes/no answers”.
Asked if she was able to assess his wellbeing from that contact, she replied: “Unfortunately, no.”
School reopened on June 8, but Arthur did not attend and it was the last time Ms Turrell spoke to Arthur.
Tustin has admitted one count of child cruelty by ill-treating Arthur on multiple occasions in “forcing him to stand, isolating him within the family home, and physically or verbally intimidating him”.
Hughes denies a similar charge.
Hughes and Tustin also face an allegation of child cruelty by administering salt to Arthur between June 1 and 17 last year.
Both are also accused of two counts of child cruelty by assault on multiple occasions and also by withholding food and drink.
Hughes, of Stroud Road, and Tustin, of Cranmore Road, deny those charges and Arthur’s murder, and the trial continues.