Social workers condemned over parents' abuse of disabled girl

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The Independent Online

Social workers came under fire yesterday after an investigation into the abuse of a disabled four-year-old girl described by a detective as "one of the worst cases" he had seen.

The girl, who has cerebral palsy, suffered at the hands of her mother, Kimberly Harte, 23, and her boyfriend, Samuel Duncan, 27, from west London, who were yesterday sentenced to a total of 22 years in jail.

The "systematic violence" included pouring boiling water over her hands, ripping clumps of hair from her scalp, repeatedly kicking her in the groin and locking her naked in the lavatory every night, sometimes forcing her to eat her own faeces.

Although the girl was initially removed by Westminster City Council's social services after domestic violence between Harte and Duncan, she was returned home last January despite the concerns of her foster carers. Within four weeks, Duncan broke her arm, an assault that was followed by other sickening attacks.

Although it is understood that up to 20 visits were made to the family by social services and other care professionals, no abuse was suspected, despite the social workers apparently being told on a quarter of these occasions that the child was out with her father.

Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court heard how the girl, identified as "Child B", was in an almost constant agony until her grandmother began to suspect abuse. She suffered such "horrific injuries" that she would almost certainly have died without treatment, the court heard. When she was finally removed, she was in such agony, her injuries had to be examined under general anaesthetic.

On sentencing the pair, Judge Paul Worsley QC described one attack by Harte in which she "had kicked [the girl] like a football so repeatedly and so severely in the groin that she suffered appalling bruising, internal bleeding and permanent liver damage. While in another attack, Harte had observed to Duncan "you could have killed her".

Afterwards, the judge raised concerns over the decision to return the girl to her parents. "I have anxieties about the way this child was returned to her parents against the express wishes of her foster carers," he said.

Outside court, Det Sgt Tony Smith, from the Metropolitan Police's child abuse investigation unit, said this case was "without doubt one of the worst cases of abuse I have dealt with".

A 53-page "serious case review" by the Westminster council's Local Safeguarding Children Board acknowledged failings. Ron Lock, the author of an independent review of the case, said social workers were "inappropriately optimistic" in dealing with the case. Professionals were "too adult-focused" when assessing the capability of Harte and Duncan to look after their daughter.

Mr Lock added that the couple had managed to convince social workers that the girl was safe in their care, but that "a more rigorous assessment process should have uncovered the poor relationship that would likely have existed between the father and his four-year-old daughter".

He added: "An inappropriate rule of optimism existed in that professionals were too adult-focused and believed the parents had worked hard to resolve their problems and could be relied upon to be capable parents." But he concluded that the extent of the physical abuse could not have been foreseen as there was no evidence of it.

Westminster council said health and social care workers made 20 visits to the home after the girl was returned but there was a period of nine days when the parents evaded contact with authorities despite several attempts to get in touch.

Michelle Elliot, of the child protection charity Kidscape, said: "There will always be cases of child cruelty but what is distressing about this case is that there was a chance to save the child from cruelty. Because of a poor decision this child was handed back to her parents and harmed."

Of the social workers, she added: "It is pathetic they accepted such excuses. I know they are in a difficult position but common sense should tell you they were hiding something, which they were," she said.

Julie Jones, chair of the Local Safeguarding Children Board, said: "When a child is injured everyone who had dealings with the family will inevitably consider whether they could have done anything differently which may have altered the deeply regrettable injuries.

"In this case it is clear that those staff who saw this child and her family could not have foreseen the injuries she sustained."

Victims of cruelty

* The case of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old who was tortured for months before her death at the hands of carers Therese Kouao and Carl John Manning in 2000, led to an inquiry conducted by Lord Laming, which recommended action to prevent any such future tragedy.

* Toni-Ann Byfield, aged seven, and her father were shot in a north-west London bedsit. The girl was under the care of Birmingham social services in 2003. A review into her care concluded that "action needs to be taken to better safeguard children".

* In 2005, Ukleigha Batten-Froggatt, aged six, who was on the "at risk" register, was strangled by her mother's boyfriend at their flat in north London. The girl had been under the watch of social workers amid concerns of neglect because of her mother's drinking.