Damages for boy injured in minder's care: Parents not warned that council-registered woman was under suspicion, writes Stephen Ward

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THE HIGH Court yesterday ordered a county council to pay damages to a boy who received severe head injuries while being looked after by one of its registered childminders.

The childminder had been investigated by the social services department over similar injuries suffered by another child in her care three months earlier, but the council had failed to warn other parents that she was under suspicion, a judge ruled.

Mr Justice Scott Baker awarded damages jointly against Surrey County Council and Christine Walton, who was de-registered after the second child was injured. Mrs Walton's husband, Martin, was cleared of liability.

Cora Dowling, 33, a single parent, was given no warning when she telephoned to inquire about placing her son Thomas, then six months old, with Mrs Walton, the court was told. The judge held that Thomas is brain-damaged and partially sighted as a result of being severely shaken by Mrs Walton. The amount of damages will be assessed at a later date.

The council was given leave to seek to recover up to 90 per cent of the damages and costs it will have to pay from Mrs Walton because she was directly responsible for the injuries. No damages were claimed on behalf of the other injured child, Simon Hewitt, although the judge also found his injury - which left him with epileptic seizures and learning and behavioural problems - was non-accidental and suffered while in Mrs Walton's care.

The Waltons had told the court that Thomas became ill while they were looking after him in September 1989 but they denied hurting him or Simon and were unable to explain their injuries. But the judge said he did not feel the couple were telling the truth.

In his judgment, the judge said that after the first injury, the council had held two case conferences, which had been inconclusive. Peter Bodycomb, the council's nursery and child minding officer had felt Mrs Walton would make a good minder and had offered her a lot of support since the Simon Hewitt incident.

Mr Bodycomb 'chose to ignore the risk' and did not warn the mother, the judge said. He added: 'No caring mother who had sat through two case conferences would have contemplated leaving her small baby with Mrs Walton.'

The Waltons refused to comment after the ruling. Ms Dowling said: 'I am very pleased, but I should not have been here today because this should never have been allowed to happen.' She said Thomas was a 'very happy little boy' despite his problems.

The council has accepted responsibility for Mr Bodycomb's actions. The director of social services, Graham Gatgehouse, said: 'We had no reason to be over-critical with what Peter Bodycomb had done. He was misguided.'

The National Childminding Association, which has a register of 109,000 childminders, said the incident had taken place before the new standards introduced in the 1989 Children Act, were implemented in October 1990.

Gill Haynes, director, said: 'We are confident in the last three years there have been many improvements in the way in which local authorities register and monitor childminders, and in some cases have improved their child protection procedures.'

Law report, page 31