Abuse case social worker 'unqualified for task'

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The Independent Online

A social worker who missed signs of abuse against a three-year-old girl who suffered nearly 200 scars at the hands of her father was unqualified for the task, a report concluded today.

Social services in Cumbria acted after an anonymous tip-off but the professional believed the child's mother when she said the caller was a malicious racist and then did not examine underneath the girl's clothes.

Reuben Williams, 23, bit, scratched and pinched nearly every part of the youngster's body except her face as he began tormenting her when she was just eight months old.

He was jailed indefinitely in February last year after he admitted inflicting grievous bodily harm with intent. He must serve a minimum of five years before he can be considered for parole.

The child's mother, Elodie Massacrier, 22, covered up the abuse by not seeking medical intervention for the injuries and ensuring her daughter was always fully dressed in public.

She was jailed at Carlisle Crown Court for two-and-a-half years after she pleaded guilty to cruelty.

Sentencing the pair, Judge Peter Hughes criticised health agencies and social services as he said it appeared there were a number of "lost opportunities" to halt the abuse.

A Serious Case Review published by Cumbria Local Safeguarding Children Board confirmed that chances for agencies to share information were missed but it "remained uncertain" whether that would have led to the injuries being discovered earlier.

The court was told last year that Williams's adoptive mother said she contacted social services in Northamptonshire in July 2006 over her worries that Massacrier always kept the child fully-clothed from head to toe.

A health visitor called at their Northampton home on two occasions but there was no reply as by then the couple had moved to Carlisle.

In Carlisle another health visitor called on them and ruled there were no child protection issues despite not seeing the girl who was said to be asleep at the time, the court heard.

In November 2006 the social worker visited and also took no action before the abuse was finally revealed in March 2008 when a neighbour spotted scarring on the child's legs and contacted police.

After moving to Cumbria the family "consistently attempted" to keep the child away from agencies by not attending, or cancelling, appointments, the review found.

Williams and Massacrier were said to be "charming and convincing" when being interviewed by professionals and had an "excellent cover story" of Williams being the victim of a violent assault to explain their motivation for the move to Cumbria.

The report pointed out that families involved in the deliberate abuse of children will make "considerable efforts" to ensure that this information stays within the family.

"Workers need to constantly remind themselves of this and ensure that every new assessment is approached with the words of Lord Laming in mind - 'Respectful Vigilance/Respectful Scepticism," it said.

Referring to the visit by the social worker, the report stated: "This review highlighted issues around the lack of experience and appropriate qualifications of the worker allocated the assessment, the failure to collate a holistic picture prior to a visit and the lack of managerial oversight of the process.

"If a referral alleges that a child has suffered or is likely to suffer significant harm, the initial assessment must be allocated to a suitably qualified and experienced social worker."

It added that children's services in the county had since "restructured the initial response services to ensure that initial assessments are carried out by qualified social workers who are supervised by experienced managers".

The report continued: "Children moving between local authorities are an extremely vulnerable group.

"It is important that authorities work to clear protocols and are able to share information in an efficient and effective way in order to ensure that these children have their needs met."

Health officials in Cumbria were made aware by their counterparts in Northamptonshire of the family avoiding them but after the health visitor saw the family in Carlisle it was decided it was not a safeguarding issue.

The report made a host of recommendations - which Cumbria Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) said had been acted upon - as it also ruled that agencies needed to work together better and records of basic information should be improved.

It said the child was living with a close relative and was "now thriving and meeting all developmental milestones".

In a statement, Cumbria LSCB said: "Any case involving the abuse of a child is distressing and we are sorry that a child has suffered in this way.

"When agencies were alerted to the injuries their first priority was to the welfare of the child and all the necessary steps were taken to ensure their safety. The child is now living with a close relative and thriving.

"Through this Serious Case Review, 15 recommendations have been made for the board and agencies involved with this child. All those recommendations have been implemented.

"The LSCB has put in place new procedures for the handling of domestic violence incidents for all agencies. The procedures and tools that we have put in place will help us identify risks linked to domestic violence at an earlier stage. We have also put in place training to ensure professionals understand these procedures.

"The review identified that the vigilance of communities is key to ensuring children are safe. It is often the case that the first signs of abuse are spotted by family, friends or neighbours.

"This was particularly highlighted in this case. We would urge anyone who has any concerns to contact Children's Services or, if they feel there is an immediate danger, the police.

"We are closely monitoring the action plan to ensure the changes that have been put in place are maintained. The serious case review is an important part of helping us identify where we could all do things better.

"Ensuring our children are safe and protected from harm is our absolute priority and we will continue to work with all agencies to ensure we do the best we can for children at risk."