A key social worker in the Victoria Climbie case finally turned up to testify at the inquiry into the eight-year-old's death after repeatedly ignoring requests to attend.
Carole Baptiste insisted to Victoria's parents that she understood their sadness. But she cut an eccentric figure – refusing to take off her coat, gloves and the cloche hat which covered most of her face – during evidence marked by long pauses, refusals to comment and defensive statements.
Having "exhausted" the patience of the inquiry's chairman Lord Laming with her repeated failure to respond to requests and summonses to testify, Ms Baptiste, 39, faces prosecution – the first of its kind – for her alleged refusal to co-operate. She denies the charge.
The Government launched an "urgent" inquiry into how four London authorities, two police child protection teams and two hospitals had failed to save Victoria from the vicious abuse that eventually killed her on the conviction of her murderers in January last year.
Ms Baptiste, team manager at Haringey social services responsible for supervising Victoria's key worker and "absolutely crucial to the progress of the inquiry", has been repeatedly accused of failing in her duties.
She has claimed she was unable to attend the inquiry because of depression. It was not until she appeared before Camberwell Green magistrates in December accused of "obstruction and obfuscation", that Ms Baptiste's lawyers publicly announced that she was now well enough to testify.
Yesterday she arrived to give evidence in front of Victoria's parents Francis and Berthe Climbie, with a long personal note to them in which she begged them for forgiveness and expressed her own sorrow.
Ms Baptiste, a born-again Christian, said in her note: "Whatever you may think about my non-attendance at the inquiry to date, you both have been in my thoughts and the sadness you may be feeling within your hearts, I feel within mine.
"Despite what might be thought of me, I will tell you that I have been unwell, and my recovery and understanding my illness has taken me a long time to come to terms with.
"Please forgive me if at any time you have felt that I have frustrated or hindered the inquiry," she added.
"I regret that Victoria's voice was not heard and nobody will fully understand the pain that she suffered. I can only hope that the contribution that I have subsequently made will help to prevent another child's death."
But Victoria's parents rejected her note, insisting it came "rather late".
They said: "It may very well be that she has suffered emotionally and psychologically but her distress cannot be compared with the distress we have suffered. Her delay [in attending the inquiry] has prolonged our suffering."
Lisa Arthurworrey, the social worker responsible for Victoria before her death in February 2000, told the inquiry that Ms Baptiste had failed to supervise her properly, was rarely available and preferred to talk about her relationship with God and her experiences of being a black woman rather than child protection.
Yesterday Neil Garnham QC, counsel to the inquiry, quoted numerous criticism of her by her colleagues.
John Myrie, a social worker, told an internal inquiry: "I have been supervised by a lot of people, both male and female, of various ethnic origins and Carole Baptiste is the worst." Mr Garnham said others had called her "unsupportive, unfocused, chaotic" with a "bizarre, passive" management style.
Ms Baptiste admitted she ought to have looked at Victoria's case file "more thoroughly", but she rejected the criticisms levelled at her.
She insisted she had supervised Miss Arthurworrey "very closely" but criticised her for being insufficiently analytical and failing to ask the right questions.
Mr Garnham responded: "This is arrant nonsense, is it not? You are simply blaming Miss Arthurworrey now, despite the fact that you thought she was competent at the time, in order to deflect criticism from yourself."
But Ms Baptiste insisted she had accepted "a lot of criticism" during questioning.
Victoria was imprisoned, beaten and starved for months on end by her father's aunt Marie Therese Kouao, 45, and her partner Carl Manning, 28, at a flat in north London.
Ms Baptiste was made redundant from Haringey social services in February 2000. She had been on almost constant leave since losing her team managerial position in restructuring in November.
Ms Baptiste said in her statement: "I deeply regret any contribution that I may have had in what happened to Victoria. I do not seek to avoid my part in what occurred and it saddens me to see that others have sought to do so."Reuse content