Laws broken, procedures ignored: the litany of blunders that cost Toni-Ann's life

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The Independent Online

The full extent of the social service blunders and institutional incompetence that led to seven-year-old Toni-Ann Byfield being shot dead in a crack dealer's bedsit were revealed yesterday in a damning report.

Social workers were found to be so obsessed with reuniting the girl with the man everyone believed was her father - a convicted drug dealer who had been the target of one assassination attempt - that they broke child protection laws and ignored proper procedures.

Toni-Ann was with Mr Byfield, 41, in his bedsit in Kensal Rise, north-west London, when they were shot dead on 14 September last year. Detectives have yet to catch the killers, but believe the girl was shot i the back at point-blank range in front of her father, before he too was gunned down over a £25,000 drug debt.

As revealed in The Independent earlier this week, an inquiry into the care of Toni-Ann, who was under the legal protection of Birmingham City Council, uncovered a series of failures by social workers, guardians and immigration officials.

Publishing his report yesterday, David Lambert, a former assistant chief inspector at the Social Services Inspectorate, said Birmingham's social services department had broken child protection law in the way it handled the case, and severely criticised managers for being more concerned with the rights of Mr Byfield as a father than the interests of Toni-Ann.

Just weeks before the double murder, social workers in Birmingham, where Toni-Ann had been living with a foster mother, had decided to place the child with Mr Byfield's girlfriend so she could be closer to her father during the summer holidays.

Despite knowing of his previous convictions, Birmingham's Social Care and Health Directorate had given Mr Byfield a glowing assessment as a father and were planning to allow him custody.

Yet they failed to ask the Metropolitan Police for information on Mr Byfield, or to contact local authorities in London to warn them that they were moving Toni-Ann to the capital with unsupervised access to her father. The child was moved between homes four times in as many years. Just weeks before she was killed, she disappeared with her father for six days, but no action was taken.

Mr Lambert said: "The over-riding feeling that the review provokes is one of great sadness for the untimely death of this young girl.

"The primary focus... was on the assessment of Mr Byfield's parental capacity and the practicalities of the arrangements for him to undertake his parental role, and that inadequate attention was paid to the full and necessary assessment of Toni-Ann's needs... The review has to conclude that professionals had very little knowledge of what was happening to Toni-Ann during the five weeks she was in London."

He condemned social workers in Birmingham for not liaising with colleagues in the London Borough of Brent or the Metropolitan Police.

Mr Lambert said social workers had broken the law by placing Toni-Ann with Byfield's girlfriend, Cymon Campbell, before all the proper checks had been carried out.

He also criticised staff for failing to visit the girl on a weekly basis. During her five weeks in London, she was seen just once by a social worker, and a children's guardian appointed by the Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) failed to properly investigate how she had been allowed to disappear for a week.

The report found there were long delays in appointing a children's guardian, and continued failures to investigate Mr Byfield's claims to be a good parent. Brent social services knew that he had four other children by four women, and who were all known to social services.

Mr Byfield believed he was Toni-Ann's father but post-mortem DNA tests revealed he was not biologically related. He was considered a "transient" father by Brent, while Metropolitan Police detectives knew he was still dealing in crack cocaine at the time of his death.

Despite the serious concerns raised by the report, neither the social workers nor the children's guardian have lost their jobs, and no one from Birmingham City Council has resigned.

Peter Hay, strategic director of social care at the council, said: "Toni-Ann was a child in care and we let her down."

Asked whether social workers should have considered a convicted crack dealer as a suitable parent without checking with the police or other social services, Mr Hay said: "Bertram Byfield was extremely honest in his dealings with us.

"He had been honest with us about his past offences but we were not aware of his full life. We looked at his fitness to be a parent. A lot of children looked after by this city come with a background of drugs."

Harry Fletcher, the Assistant General Secretary of Napo, the union for family court and probation staff, said Cafcass had 30 children's guardian cases in the West Midlands awaiting allocation at the time of Toni-Ann's death.

He said: "There will be more tragedies unless the structural issues of resources and training are finally addressed."