Social workers claim that a media frenzy is damaging the welfare of “father at 13” Alfie Patten, his one-time girlfriend Chantelle Steadman, 15, and her newborn daughter.
Child protection officers at East Sussex County Council have written to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to complain about harassment of the teenagers. The PCC is already investigating whether or not The Sun and The People broke rules by making payments to the Patten family. News organisations may only do so if there is a “demonstrable public interest” in a story. Both papers will argue that such a public interest is evidenced by wider fears about a “broken society”.
The county council has also brought a prosecution against Alfie’s mother, Nicola Patten, for letting him play truant from Willingdon Community School, near his home in Hailsham, East Sussex. She will appear in court next Tuesday charged with “failing to send a child to school”. A spokesman for the Courts Service confirmed that the charges related to Alfie’s failure to attend school between 7 July and 5 December 2008.
Last Friday, Alfie was shown on the front page of The Sun with Maisie Roxanne, whom he claims to have fathered. Up to six other local youths claim to have slept with Chantelle in the past nine months, but two in particular – Richard Goodsell, 16, and Tyler Barker, 14 – have been forceful in their claims on the child. Alfie is to have a DNA paternity test, his agent Max Clifford confirmed. Contrary to some reports, social services in East Sussex will not pay the £300 cost.
The PCC had already announced on Monday that it was launching an inquiry into the case, following receipt of a letter from the constituency MP, Charles Hendry.
The Independent understands that The Sun initially offered the families between £10,000 and £15,000, soon raising that to about £32,000. Max Clifford, Alfie’s agent, refused to confirm the sum, or reports that Alfie would open his DNA test results, expected on Monday, live on television.
Channel 4’s Cutting Edge programme has already secured rights for a documentary about the boy, and at least 15 production companies have enquired about his availability.
The PCC was forced to defend itself yesterday from accusations that it had failed to act swiftly enough to protect the privacy of the three children. A spokesman said an inquiry would have been launched even if Mr Hendry’s letter had not made its way to the office of the PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer. PCC insiders, the spokesman said, had been “sniffing the air” over the weekend and were resolved to conduct an inquiry even before public pressure made it inevitable.
Anne Longfield, chief executive of the charity 4Children, said: “I think it’s accurate to call this a feeding frenzy. We’ve got to remember that children are extremely vulnerable under the media spotlight.”