UK 1996: a small child is left to scavenge crumbs put out for birds

Four infants abandoned in drinking den
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The Independent Online
An inquiry has been launched into a case in which four children, all aged four years or younger, were found unattended in a filthy house used as a drinking den in north Belfast.

Conditions in the house shocked social workers and police, who had to mask their faces against the smell of urine and faeces. Neighbours told of seeing a four-year-old boy clambering out of a window to eat bread left for birds. He was also seen scavenging through discarded take-away food cartons.

The children's mother, who is 20, reportedly had left them to attend a party 30 miles away. Neighbours who alerted the authorities to the plight of the children were commended for their sense of duty. The house is in the Ardoyne, one of Belfast's toughest districts, which is known as a black spot both for unemployment and for republican violence.

The four children - three boys aged four, three, and 10 months, and their two-year-old sister - were taken into care early on Saturday morning. Police who went the house found four drunken youths, who were unrelated to the family.

Beer cans were scattered throughout the house and the garden. A baby's cot was soaked in urine, while more urine was found in milk bottles. The smell was described as "unbelievable". After the children were taken into care, local people moved in to clean the house, taking away 10 bags of rubbish.

The North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust said the family was known to staff and that out-of-hours social work services had responded promptly.

Locals said social workers had visited the house at least twice. One woman said: "The welfare was to blame. They made regular visits but they just seemed to have overlooked the problem. This is what made us so angry. When you think of what those poor children had to suffer - it's awful.

"A local Sinn Fein councillor, Bobby Lavery, has been to the house before, and it's going to happen again. It's not because the people working for welfare are bad people. There's not enough money being put in with government cutbacks. Government cutbacks are causing this pain to the children."

Judy Kennedy, the health trust's programme manager of family and child- care, said the children were safe and well in care. She said neglect, unlike physical or sexual abuse, where there were obvious physical signs, was difficult to assess and could deteriorate very rapidly.

She added: "By law we are required in the first instance to really try and support parents, and to view admission to care as something which only happens when there is really no other option." She said the trust would be examining the case and its treatment very carefully.