Star Hobson: The short life and death of a beloved toddler

By Pritti Mistry
BBC News

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Media caption,
David Fawcett remembers his "magic" great-granddaughter

In her 16 short months, Star Hobson lived a life in two halves - the first filled with the warmth of true love, the second with cold, callous mistreatment. Concerns were raised. Star's family say they tried to warn authorities. So how did a little girl adored by so many end up dead after months of physical and emotional abuse?

Star Hobson was, in many ways, a typical toddler. Born in May 2019 into a big family, she was adored and showered with love and affection. An extended support network of relatives close and distant meant someone who doted upon the infant was rarely far away.

"I couldn't wait to get home from work to see her. I'd be dashing home and think: 'little Star will be there when we get back'," says great-grandad David Fawcett.

He remembers happy times with the toddler, watching her playful personality emerge at his home in Baildon, West Yorkshire.

"Every time she heard music, that'd be it. Her little head would be going and she'd start dancing in front of the telly," he says.

Image source, David Fawcett
Image caption,
Star Hobson suffered a cardiac arrest as a result of catastrophic injuries and died in September 2020

Star's earlier, happier life was filled with love. Pictures posted on social media show a cheeky, smiling little girl with piercing blue eyes and a mop of short, mousey brown hair. In one family snap she is surrounded by gift bags, wearing a pink dress and an elaborate plastic tiara.

To those who loved her, Star was their princess.

"If you could bottle that time...I'd just love to replay it over and over again, because it was absolutely brilliant," says David.

But the happy baby who melted the hearts of all who met her would endure a second, darker existence.

Gradually isolated and shielded from the loving gaze of devoted family members, she would slowly succumb to mistreatment at the hands of two people who should have cared for her the most: mother Frankie Smith and her partner Savannah Brockhill.

Image source, David Fawcett
Image caption,
Star was loved by the many members of her extended family

On the day of Star's death in September 2020 she was found, lifeless and pale, at the pair's flat in Keighley, West Yorkshire, and pronounced dead in hospital. A post-mortem examination would find evidence of catastrophic, unsurvivable injuries. Their likely cause: punching, kicking or stamping.

This act of violence was not a one-off. Further investigation would reveal a string of other significant injuries to her tiny body, not least a skull fracture and a shin fracture caused by "forceful twisting".

Relatives say they raised the alarm. Five referrals were made to social services. But it was not enough to save the little girl from her mother and her domineering, controlling partner.

Image source, Facebook
Image caption,
Frankie Smith (left) and Savannah Brockhill had a volatile, sometimes violent, relationship, the court heard

Star was six months old when Frankie Smith broke up with the child's father, Jordan Hobson, in November 2019.

A month later, she met Savannah Brockhill at the pub where the older woman worked on door security. The two began an on-off, volatile relationship peppered with arguments and instances of domestic violence.

David Fawcett, Frankie Smith's grandfather, says her family noticed a change in her attitude towards Star after she met Brockhill. It wasn't long before the "dominating and controlling" bouncer and security guard "got into Frankie's head" and left the young mother fearful of her partner.

This appeared to have an effect on the little girl. Star's babysitter thought she had changed and "not for the better". In January 2020, she would be the first person to contact Bradford social services.

Image source, Facebook
Image caption,
Star's great-grandparents say they warned social services they would have "another Baby P" if they did not intervene

By February 2020, the relationship and caring duties had taken their toll on Smith and she asked her grandmother, Anita Smith, for help with the toddler.

David says he and Anita, his partner of 27 years, picked up Star and thought she looked thin, sad and depressed.

"I've never seen a depressed baby before. She was looking at the floor and Anita said: 'Oh, look at her, poor little Star. She's never gonna be the same again'," he says.

But David says staying with her great-grandparents brought about an almost instant change in Star: "Within about two, three days she just perked up and she was absolutely brilliant. Magic."

Star would stay with David and Anita for 11 weeks until late April 2020. David says the point Star returned to her mother was when "everything changed".

Media caption,
'Possessive" Savannah Brockhill dubbed herself a "psycho" in a Snapchat video warning others away from girlfriend Frankie Smith

"Frankie rang and said, 'we're gonna keep her here now', he says. "And then Savannah more or less said: 'She's our child. We're gonna bring her up our way'. And that's how all this started off, really."

Soon afterwards, in May 2020, Anita Smith would become the second person to contact Bradford social services about Star after learning she had been "slam-choked" by Brockhill.

David says: "We'd never heard of it. What's slam-choking a 10-month-old baby? What's going on? We were told Savannah...she picks her up and she grabs her neck and throws her on the bed."

He says Anita called social services and warned Bradford Council they would have "another Baby P on their hands" if they did not intervene in Star's case. But he says the complaint was closed after it had been dismissed as malicious and based on their dislike of Brockhill.

It was at this point that the couple began to isolate themselves from family members. According to David, Brockhill helped to move Frankie Smith and Star to Keighley, several miles away from her great-grandparents in Baildon.

He says: "Savannah didn't want anything to do with us. She was telling Frankie to keep Star away. It wasn't so long before our phone calls were getting blocked."

Away from watchful eyes, Star would endure an accelerating campaign of physical and psychological torment.

Image source, Jordan Hobson
Image caption,
Star Hobson's relatives became increasingly concerned that something terrible would happen to her

At the women's trial, Bradford Crown Court would hear that Brockhill favoured a tough parenting style, one which Smith would try to enforce with shouting and other punishments.

Brockhill admitted striking the toddler. In a text to Smith, she described Star as a "brat". "She thinks nothing of you," she added.

Relatives, on the increasingly rare occasions they were allowed to see the toddler, would begin to notice marks and bruises on her body. During the couple's trial it was heard that, as early as June 2020, Brockhill was making internet searches for how to take away bruising quickly.

In the same month, Star's father, Jordan Hobson, would make a third referral to authorities after seeing photos of Star with a bruised cheek.

Police visited Frankie Smith and Star was examined by a doctor. This would be the only time she was taken for medical treatment. On this occasion, as on others, the couple explained away the injuries, blaming them on the clumsy toddler: Star hitting her head on a coffee table; walking into a sofa; falling and tripping. It was enough for the cases to be closed.

Image source, David Fawcett
Image caption,
David Fawcett says Star's family feels let down by social services and her death could have been prevented

Social media posts over the summer would provide a further clue that all was not well in Star's world. A series of "disturbing and bizarre" videos recorded on the defendant's mobile phones would depict Star as an object of amusement, described by prosecutor Alistair MacDonald QC as "clearly exhausted but treated completely without love". In one, Star is seen falling off a plastic chair and hitting the floor. In another, she slumps forward into a bowl of food.

Some of these clips were posted online, with light-hearted captions, music and visual effects. In her evidence, Brockhill likened them to videos seen on TV show You've Been Framed.

As they became further cut off from their beloved great-granddaughter, David Fawcett and Anita Smith had become increasingly concerned that something terrible would happen to her.

"Anita used to say, and she used to say this quite a lot: 'Poor little Star. You do realise she's gonna end up a little star in the sky, don't you?'," says David.

Two more referrals were made by others over the summer, one by a family friend and a final alert from Smith's grandfather, Frank, weeks before Star's death.

Image caption,
Star was found "apparently lifeless, pale" at her mother's flat on Wesley Place in Keighley

By September, as the abuse had continued to increase, Brockhill, working overnight as a security guard, drove with Star to a recycling plant in Doncaster. In CCTV footage recorded over the course of three hours outside the site, Brockhill is seen to deliver a total of 21 blows to the toddler. At one point, the little girl falls out of the car. A video recorded the next morning, on 14 September, upon their return to the couple's flat shows a large mark on Star's cheek.

According to evidence heard in court, this episode prompted a dispute between the couple, with Smith texting Brockhill: "Stay away from us". It was not to last.

Just over a week later, Star was playing with two other children at the couple's flat when she was violently assaulted. Internet searches on "shock in babies" and "how to bring a baby out of shock" were made 15 minutes before any 999 call.

The fatal injury to Star's abdomen left lacerations on her internal organs, deemed to be the result of "severe and forceful" blows. In court, prosecutor Alistair MacDonald QC told jurors there "never was any real chance of saving her life" once those injuries had been inflicted.

Hospital staff said Star was dead on arrival by the time she was brought to Airedale General Hospital, a few miles from Keighley. They were struck by Brockhill and Smith's odd behaviour - Brockhill's aggression, Smith's reluctance to hold her daughter - and flagged their concerns to a safeguarding team.

The women would be arrested and charged with Star's murder. Investigations would reveal the child's multiple injuries, the strange social media videos and dozens of texts illustrating the dysfunctional relationship the little girl had become caught in the middle of.

Image source, David Fawcett
Image caption,
Star's family say they hope to work to prevent other families enduring the same horror as them

By the time the couple's lies were exposed, it was too late for Star. It was only after her death that the extent of physical abuse became apparent. Only after her death did Brockhill's text messages, full of disdain for the "nasty, naughty" child, come to light. Only after her death did it emerge that her two carers delayed 15 minutes before calling 999 as she lay on the floor experiencing a "medical catastrophe".

David Fawcett says Star's family feels let down by social services. He believes her death could have been prevented if action had been taken sooner. As they await the publication of a safeguarding review into the actions of different agencies, Mr Fawcett says the family wants to find a way to make sure other families don't have to go through the same thing they have.

But Star Hobson will leave another legacy. Though she lived for just 16 months, she will be remembered by those who loved her for much longer.

Last month, 150 people turned up to attend a vigil in her honour. Pink and yellow balloons were released into the air - colours the little girl was often seen dressed in. It was an outpouring of love and a celebration of Star's better life, happy, and adored by those around her. Her godfather, Jake Lowndes, who organised the event, said it had been a fitting tribute to a girl who "had the perfect name for the perfect baby".

Image source, David Fawcett
Image caption,
David Fawcett doted on great-granddaughter Star

David Fawcett says: "I know for a fact we'll never, ever get over losing Star, but we'll learn to live with it."

"I'm going to work crying some mornings", he says, knowing the little girl he used to rush home to see will never again be there to greet him.

"It just hits you and you just get overcome with it. You just can't believe we're never going to see her again."

The memory of their final meeting, in August 2020, about six weeks before Star's death, is particularly painful.

"I just thought we'll see her again. That was the last time. I'll never forget it, just disappearing out of sight, like sand going through your fingers. Now she's gone."

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