Growing workload blamed for failing children at risk

Lauren Wright case: Social workers
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The Independent Online

When David Wright, head of Norfolk Social Services, admitted failing to protect five-year-old Lauren Creed from being killed by her stepfather, he warned that the same could happen again.

The prophecy proved tragically accurate. Just days after his statement, on 11 December 1998, Lauren Wright, then aged five, moved in with her future stepmother. She would be dead within 18 months.

Social workers who were alerted by neighbours almost two months before Lauren Wright died, saw first-hand the bruises to the child's body when she was taken to visit a GP and then a paediatrician. Yet they failed to take action in time.

Ten days before Lauren died, a social worker from Hertfordshire, who had been visiting the Wright family for other reasons, was so concerned that she telephoned Norfolk Social Services department. Despite a follow-up call a week later and a letter, she heard nothing more.

Norfolk social workers eventually arranged to visit the Wrights' home again on 8 May but by that time Lauren was dead.

Lauren's case is the fourth time in as many years that a child's violent death has led to criticism of social workers in Norfolk. The head of the county's social services department blames an excessive workload – a sentiment reflected last week by leaders of the profession, who said vulnerable children nationally were in "very real danger" of being overlooked because of a recruitment crisis.

Norfolk, however, has an particularly bad record.

In the Lauren Creed case, a post-mortem examination found 167 bruises on the girl's her body after she was beaten to death in "silent terror" by her stepfather.

Graham Sate, a merchant seaman, then aged 25, was jailed for life for her murder in December 1998. Lauren's mother, Sharon Creed, was jailed for five years after admitting two charges of cruelty. She failed to call an ambulance for 90 minutes after the beating that killed her daughter.

In an echo of the Lauren Wright case, a neighbour of Sate – a man with a violent past – alerted social services to the child's plight three months before she died. Several doctors examined her and expressed concerns about marks on her body.

Social services made an appointment with the girl's mother, a senior aircraftswoman at RAF Coltishall, on 20 October but the meeting never took place because the family called it off. Lauren died the next day. A review of the case recommended better lines of communication.

Six months earlier, Helen Stacey, 41, a childminder was jailed for life for the murder of six-month-old Joseph Mackin.

On appeal, her conviction was reduced to manslaughter and her sentence was changed to seven years.

Stacey was registered with Norfolk County Council as a childminder. Checks had failed to reveal convictions for prostitution and shoplifting. At a press conference after her trial, David Wright said: "We can never have a 100 per cent fool-proof system."

In June 1999, Marcus Bebbington, 34, was jailed for six years for the manslaughter of his four-month-old son, Kristian. The boy, who had been on an "at risk" register almost since birth, died of head injuries.

After the verdict, it was claimed that social workers were too scared to visit Bebbington, a man with a history of violence, after he threatened them on the doorstep.

An independent review of the case by Professor Olive Stevenson, of Nottingham University, concluded there had been "a lack of overall direction in the management of the case," and "the potential risk was not fully grasped or acted upon quickly enough".

The review recommended that Norfolk Social Services overhaul its child protection procedures.

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