Mother convicted of poisoning second daughter

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The Independent Online
A mother convicted of killing her four-year-old daughter by feeding her anti-depressant tablets was yesterday found guilty of a second poisoning charge. A jury at Nottingham Crown Court convicted Celia Beckett, 34, of poisoning her daughter Debbie in addition to the poisoning and manslaughter of her eldest child, Tracey. Beckett had admitted causing cruelty to Debbie.

As police suggested that she might be suffering from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, where she might have harmed the children to draw attention to herself, she was granted bail while psychiatric reports were prepared for sentencing. But the Honourable Mr Justice Garland said: "The fact that I am giving bail does not make any indication of the possible sentence. I think we are all aware that manslaughter of this nature is a very serious incident."

During the four-week trial, the prosecution accused agencies of a "wholesale failure" to protect Beckett's children - Tracey, Debbie, now aged six and in care, and a third daughter, Clare, who died aged seven in 1991. Nigel Rumfitt QC described the police investigation as "sloppy" and social workers "naive". Yesterday social services, North Nottinghamshire health authority and the police announced a full-scale inquiry after admitting mistakes had been made.

Detective Superintendent Peter Coles said he would not use the word "sloppy", but added: "There were opportunities presented during the course of Celia's life and the children's lives which called out for a holistic approach to be taken." Stuart Brook, Nottinghamshire's director of social services, also acknowledged that there were lessons to be learnt.

Professor Olive Stevenson, a child protection expert, is to review whether procedures for agencies working together need to be improved further. The inquiry into the Beckett case is thought likely to blame errors of judgement rather than failures of practice as the family was well supported by social and health workers. An additional factor is the unusual circumstances as the deliberate poisoning of children is rare.

During the 1980s, child protection measures focused on identifying physical and sexual abuse. But the case of the nurse Beverley Allitt highlighted the possibility of harm caused by more surreptitious means. Allitt, who suffered from Munchausen Syndrome, was jailed for life after killing four children.

Beckett, of Newark, Nottinghamshire, denied all charges except cruelty to Debbie, who is now living with foster parents under a new identity.

Warning signs went unheeded

The prosecution called it a "chilling catalogue of child abuse" with a "wholesale failure" of the authorities to investigate and intervene, writes Louise Jury.

The story that unfolded in Nottingham Crown Court revealed a host of warning signs that gave the lie to Beckett's own description of them - "just a terrible coincidence".

At 20, Beckett became pregnant but gave up the baby, Angela, for adoption. A year later, in July 1982, she gave birth to Tracey and in December she and her boyfriend, Tommy Butler, were married. He described Beckett as a woman who lost her temper in vicious rows and vented her anger on their baby.

In one incident, Mr Butler said Tracey ended up in hospital after Beckett hit her. Police were called. After the child sustained an eye injury in early 1984, she was placed on the "at risk" register.

A few months later, Clare was born. In November 1984 she was taken to the Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, after she stopped breathing.

Clare spent the rest of her life in Cauldwell House, Newark, a special home for severely ill children, before dying at the age of seven, blind and having suffered epilepsy, mental handicap and cerebral palsy. In September 1986, Tracey was taken to hospital; Beckett claimed the child had taken 23 of her amitryptolene anti-depression tablets.

The day before Tracey was due to leave hospital, Beckett took an overdose but social workers gave the all-clear for the child to return home. By the end of the month she was dead.

When Beckett gave birth to another daughter, Debbie, in February 1989, she was put on the "at-risk" register from birth.

In 1991, Debbie was taken to hospital after being discovered face-down and with breathing difficulties. She recovered but suffered a year of abuse before she was taken into care. In October 1992, social services stepped in and a month later Beckett was arrested.