A young life destroyed by abuse and neglect, a system unable to deliver on promises

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The Independent Online

Toni-Ann Byfield's life was short, chaotic and marred by abuse and neglect. In death, she will be known chiefly because she holds the tragic record of being the youngest ever victim of a Yardie assassination killing.

Toni-Ann Byfield's life was short, chaotic and marred by abuse and neglect. In death, she will be known chiefly because she holds the tragic record of being the youngest ever victim of a Yardie assassination killing.

She joins an appalling roll call of vulnerable children who have died as a result of systematic and continued failures by social workers and local authorities to prevent youngsters in their care from being abused and murdered.

A year after Lord Laming claimed his damning inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie should trigger a revolution in social services, and appealed for his report not to be "left gathering dust on social workers' shelves," yet another investigation has concluded yet again that a young girl has been killed because of basic blunders, bad management and misguided policies on what is best for the most vulnerable children in society.

As council leaders vowed to learn lessons, social workers studied the latest action plan and everyone agreed the whole affair was "deeply saddening".

The inquiry raises serious questions about the emphasis social workers put on trying to keep families together rather than take children into the care system.

Toni-Ann was born in Jamaica in 1996 to Christine Richards, who told Bertram Byfield that he was the girl's father, although it now turns out he was not.

By the time she was six months old, Byfield was serving a nine-year jail sentence for dealing in crack cocaine. Toni-Ann lived in Jamaica until 2000, when she came to Britain for a short holiday with Byfield's then girlfriend, Marcia Ashley.

Seemingly unwanted by her mother, Toni-Ann stayed on with Marcia in Birmingham before being moved to live with Carine Ashley, the grown up daughter of Marcia and Byfield.

By this point Byfield already had four children by four different women, not including Toni-Ann.

The inquiry found that at best he had a "transient" relationship with his children. All the youngsters had been cared for by a number of different people and all were known to different social services departments.

Despite this, Birmingham social workers wrote glowing reports about his role and capabilities as a father.

In September 2002, Toni-Ann was taken into emergency foster care after her primary school teachers reported concerns that she was being physically abused by Carine Byfield.

Care proceedings began and she was placed with a temporary foster carer in Birmingham. The placement went well, Toni-Ann seemed relatively unscarred by her chaotic start in Britain and setlled in to her new family.

A social worker visited her every week to check up on her. But then things began to go wrong. Byfield wanted custody of his daughter and started court proceedings.

To ensure that a child is protected, the Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) should have appointed a children's guardian to talk to Toni-Ann and find out what was in her best interests. A children's guardian was appointed only at the third court hearing and did not see Toni-Ann until March 2003.

CAFCASS has come in for harsh criticism since it was established in 2001. Huge backlogs, inexperienced case workers and massive staff shortages have all created huge problems.

After he began legal action, Byfield was assessed by Birmingham social services.

He told them he had been convicted for crack cocaine dealing; that he was living in a tiny, rundown bedsit in London; that he had no obvious means of supporting himself or his daughter.

Yet social workers gave him a "positive" report and it was decided that Toni-Ann's whole care plan should be conducted with the aim that eventually she should live with her father.

Incredibly, Birmingham's Social Care and Health Directorate did not bother to contact the Metropolitan Police to inquire about Byfield's conviction or about whether he was still suspected of being involved in drug dealing.

If they had, they would have discovered that not only did police believe he was associated with a large, well-organised and ruthless cartel of Yardie drug smugglers, many of whom were his childhood friends, but that the year before he had escaped an assassination attempt, believed to be related to a domestic issue.

Instead of raising concerns about Byfield's criminal past and current circumstances, the drive to hand his seven-year-old daughter to him merely moved up a gear.

In Spring 2003, Toni-Ann's foster mother informed social services that she wanted to travel abroad for the whole of August and September.

Byfield suggested that Cymon Campbell, who he said was Toni-Ann's aunt, could look after the little girl.

Because Mrs Campbell lived in London, close to Byfield, social workers embraced this idea with fervour.

Attempts to assess Mrs Campbell by social services were constantly delayed because she missed appointments with social workers and the children's guardian. Toni-Ann went to live with Mrs Campbell on 9 August, before all the checks had been completed.

Mrs Campbell was told that while Byfield could have unsupervised access to his daughter, she was not allowed to stay overnight with him.

Yet the day she arrived in London, Toni-Ann disappeared with her father for a week. She stayed with "friends and associates" of Byfield - police believe they may have been the gangland crack dealers responsible for the murders, who shot Toni-Ann because she knew their names.

In the two months before her death, she was seen just once by the social worker. The inquiry found that the children's guardian failed to investigate why and how Toni-Ann had disappeared with her father for a week, or investigate allegations, heard from Toni-Ann's previous school, that she may have been sexually abused.

Toni-Ann was due to be seen by a social worker six days before she was gunned down. The meeting never took place.

The case has shocked even the battle-hardened officers who work on the Metrpolitan Police's Operation Trident, which investigates Yardie crimes and other black-on-black offences.

Detective Superintendent Rick Turner said: "This was a truly horrendous and unusual crime, even in terms of what is happening in Jamaica and London. This was an assassination that involved the ruthless execution of a seven-year-old girl."

The Laming inquiry last year into Victoria Climbie's death called for far better co-operation between social services, police, schools and other authorities when dealing with at-risk children. The inquiry was hailed as a turning point in child protection and copies were sent to every social services department in the country, including Birmingham.

Yesterday's report on Toni-Ann Byfield highlighted exactly the same failings and called for the same improvements.