Wanted: Experienced, regular childminder for four-month-old baby. Contact Denise Hewitt on Ashford . . .

IF Christine Walton hadn't answered that advertisement, Simon Hewitt would be a normal, healthy, five-year-old today. As it is, he has epileptic fits, panic attacks and a permanent metal plate in his brain. He is a gregarious child, but he doesn't understand much of what you say to him, and he has almost no short-term memory.

'He'll ask 'Where's my dinosaur?' And I'll say 'upstairs' and he'll run up the stairs, but half way he'll forget what he went for and just stand there all upset and confused,' says Denise, Simon's mother.

No one quite knows whether Christine Walton, an officially registered childminder from Ashford, in Surrey, struck Simon on the head, or whether she shook him so violently that she brain-damaged him for life. But when Denise left her son with Mrs Walton on 14 June 1989, she had no inkling that she was leaving him in anything other than capable hands. Why should she have? On the face of it, Mrs Walton had all that it takes to care for a baby.

'She seemed normal and friendly and nice. We had a cup of tea and a chat and I just took to her. She was the umpteenth childminder I'd seen. She had two lovely kids of her own, loads of toys, a nice clean home and she was registered with Surrey County Council.

'She even showed me how she was making the house safe for the children - protective film from Mothercare over the glass doors, safety gadgets on the corners of the tables . . . I just thought I'd been very lucky to find her.' Denise Hewitt pauses. 'One minute you have a happy bouncing baby and the next minute you have . . . nothing.

'I picked Simon up from Christine's on 13 June. That was my first day back at work. I noticed a tiny bruise on his face. Christine said her two-year-old son, Ashley, must have poked him. On the 14th, when I went to pick him up, she came to the door holding Simon against a towel on her shoulder. I said 'Everything OK?' She said 'Yes, everything's fine.' But I suddenly realised Simon was rasping. His head started to fall backwards and his eyes were rolling. I panicked. I remember her saying 'He's just sleepy. He's been outside in the sun all day.' I screamed at her 'Get in the car and take me to the hospital.' '

At Ashford Hospital the paediatrician told Denise there was nothing wrong. Denise ranted and they agreed to keep Simon in overnight. That night he began to have seizures.

When the nurse undressed Simon she saw a blistered nappy rash, which could only have come from leaving him unchanged all day. There were bite marks, bruises and abrasions on his body and a huge red mark on the back of his head. Simon was transferred to the Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormond Street, where he underwent brain surgery. Denise was told his chances of survival were remote. 'They told me to get a priest, and that even if Simon made it he would be a vegetable.'

Simon did make it. He is not a vegetable, but he will never lead the life he might otherwise have had. Nor will his mother. Her relationship with Simon's father ended when the stress became too unbearable. She was a fraud inspector in the civil service, but she has had to give up her work to look after Simon: 'I just couldn't trust a childminder any more.'

THE police were called in to investigate Christine Walton, who claimed that Simon's injury must have been caused by her son Ashley dropping a video on his head. Because of lack of evidence, the police let the matter drop. The family moved to another part of the country.

Denise Hewitt might never have heard of Christine Walton again. Then, in July last year, Denise's doctor handed her a letter, written by a solicitor, Clifford Bellamy. 'I act for Ms Cora Dowling,' it read. 'Ms Dowling is bringing a claim for damages on behalf of her son, Thomas Harrison, arising out of injuries whilst in the care of a registered childminder, Mrs Christine Walton. I have been trying to trace you for some months . . .'

Cora Dowling, a young mother from Chesterfield, had moved to Ashford and looked for a childminder for her son Thomas. She met Christine Walton - about three months after Simon Hewitt had received his injury - and liked her. From there, the story is almost a replay of Simon's case, except for one thing. Mrs Walton told Cora Dowling that another child had been taken ill while in her care, but that the police had investigated and everything was fine. Mrs Dowling checked with the Childminding Officer at Surrey County Council, Peter Bodycomb. He gave Christine Walton the thumbs up - so Cora left her son with her. Walton shook Thomas violently, causing retinal haemorrhaging. Today, he is brain damaged and partially blind. Last month, Denise Hewitt was called to court to give evidence in Cora Dowling's action for damages.

THE case was heard in London at the Royal Court of Justice in the High Court - a civil court. The judge heard that Peter Bodycomb was well aware that the police had investigated Christine Walton - after Simon fell ill. But he didn't de- register her and he didn't feel the need to tell Cora Dowling any details of what had happened. It was as a result of what the judge described as Mr Bodycomb's 'bumbling inactivity' that Christine Walton got the chance to look after Thomas Harrison.

Cora Dowling won her claim for damages against Surrey County Council, and Mrs Walton, but just by the skin of her teeth - because of that one phone call she made to Peter Bodeycomb, to check Walton out. The council was ordered to pay damages (the amount has not yet been determined) - and was given leave to try to recover up to 90 per cent from Christine Walton. The judge held Mrs Walton liable for damages for breach of contract, negligence and assault. Her registration as a childminder has been cancelled. She still lives in Ashford.

CHRISTINE Walton appeared before a civil court, and has not been prosecuted. This is despite the fact that a judge had found that two babies had suffered serious 'non-accidental' injuries while she was looking after them. 'I am satisfied, so that I am sure, that Simon Hewitt and Thomas Harrison suffered non- accidental injuries whilst in the care of Mrs Walton,' he told the court. Walton 'was responsible' for Thomas's injuries; the injuries to Simon 'can only have been caused by Mrs Walton,' he said.

It seems incredible that Walton has not been prosecuted, but the explanation points to an alarming legal loophole. When Thomas Harrison was injured, both Christine Walton and her husband were in the house, with no other witnesses present. Neither accused the other of hurting the child.

In such a case, the police are powerless to lay the blame on one adult or the other, so neither can be held responsible. (Mr Walton was cleared of liability by the civil court.) So, on the basis of the Thomas Harrison case alone, Christine Walton could not be prosecuted for assault in a criminal court.

However, when combined with the evidence of Simon Hewitt's case, a future prosecution may be possible. The case files are now with the Crown Prosecution Service. At present, Denise Hewitt and Cora Dowling do not know if, or when, it will be pursued.

SHORTLY before the Christine Walton case came to court, Surrey County Council wrote to all childminders in Ashford. 'There may be some adverse publicity for the childminding service. This is obviously of some concern to us as I'm sure it will be to you . . .'

It is not so much the adverse publicity which should be of concern, as how to ensure tragedies of this sort are never repeated. At the time when Simon and Thomas were injured, registered childminding was governed by the Nurseries and Childminding Act 1948. It has since been replaced by the Children's Act 1989, which purports to have tighter registration procedures, better monitoring of childminders and better training. But has monitoring really improved?

Childminders are now supposed to be inspected annually. Yet in his research, Cora Dowling's solicitor, Clifford Bellamy, found that in some areas childminders are seen only once every 18 months. Indeed, Cora Dowling reports that, even since the court case, the new childminder she found for Thomas went for 15 months without a check. 'Ad hoc' inspections can take place, but, bizarrely, inspectors must let childminders know they might be unexpectedly visited.

Jill Haynes, Director of the National Childminding Association, says the problem is financial. 'The Government has given us this great new Act to implement, with no new resources.'

Training is another worrying area. According to Jill Haynes, although the Guidance to the Children's Act strongly recommends training, it is not obligatory. There are still some areas where training is poor or non-existent, while in others it can be excellent.

PERHAPS Denise Hewitt will eventually see the person who injured her child prosecuted. As to compensation, Simon Hewitt will receive a 'substantial' sum of money from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board when he is 18, but Denise doesn't know how much as it too early to assess the full extent of Simon's disabilities.

Denise had her reasons for agreeing to an interview for the first time in five years. 'It's about time some good came out of this,' she says.

For Simon and Thomas it is too late, and we can't even console ourselves that lessons have been learned. We are still not training all our childminders thoroughly or vetting them adequately. And in the worst of all scenarios, if your child is harmed, you may still never be abe to prove it was your childminder who did it.

Perhaps Simon Hewitt's story will instigate a campaign for a change in legislation and in standards for childminders. Clifford Bellamy is lobbying MPs about the issue. 'Annual monitoring of childminders is next to useless,' he says. 'It's unlikely to pick up those who are not up to the job, and it's unlikely to reassure parents about the level of local authority involvement. It's a nonsense.'

At the National Childminding Association they have a tea mug with a slogan printed on it which says 'I Love My Childminder.' To expect a child to love his childminder is asking too much. But at the very least, he has to be well cared for and safe. No parent can accept anything less.

(Photograph omitted)