Climbie inquiry told of 'lonely and miserable' death

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The parents of a little girl who died of appalling neglect today heard how their daughter was beaten and starved to death.

Berthe and Francis Climbie listened to details of their eight-year-old daughter Victoria's "lonely and miserable" death on the first day of a public hearing into her murder.

The child died last year while under the care of an aunt and her partner, despite the involvement of social services, police and the NHS.

Opening the inquiry, chairman Lord Laming said what happened to Victoria will be an "enduring turning point for securing proper protection of children in this country".

As Victoria's parents sat with heads bowed, counsel to the inquiry Neil Garnham QC painted a picture of a bright and loving child described as "a little ray of sunshine".

He told the packed south London inquiry she would "go twirling down the hospital ward in a white dress and pink wellingtons, given to her by the staff because she had no belongings of her own.

Mr Garnham said staff at the North Middlesex Hospital where Victoria was first admitted in 1999 described her as a delightful and affectionate child who enjoyed dressing up and role playing.

She loved to be cuddled and hugged, he said, and would jump into nurses' arms to kiss them hello.

On February 24, 2000 she was taken to the accident and emergency unit at the hospital by her aunt.

She was extremely cold and malnourished and covered in cuts and scars, Mr Garnham said.

Victoria was admitted to London's St Mary's Hospital in a critical condition and died the next day following a cardiac arrest and multiple system failure.

Mr Garnham told the hushed inquiry: "The way in which a society treats its children can provide a measure of its humanity."

On hearing the circumstances of her daughter's death, Victoria's mother said: "It could not happen in the Ivory Coast. Well it's happened here."

Victoria died a miserable and lonely death, alone and ill-treated for months.

Her parents are the first witnesses to give oral evidence to the inquiry into one of Britain's worst cases of child abuse.

The hearing could bring them face to face with their daughter's killers, Marie Therese Kouao, Victoria's aunt, and Carl Manning, Kouao's boyfriend, if they are called to give evidence.

The pair were jailed for life in January for the murder of the girl in Tottenham, north London, in February 2000.

The inquiry is using Victoria's real name, given to her by her parents, rather than Anna, which was used by Kouao and Manning.

Mr Garnham stressed: "It is essential we do not lose sight of the little girl at the centre of our inquiry.

"It is not simply an act of murder by two sick individuals. Victoria's ill-treatment was prolonged.

"It was not hidden away, the signs were there, it seems, on display time and time again but they went unheeded."

Mr Garnham said he would try to identify any "missed chances" in Victoria's case and "flag up areas where the conduct of individuals might justify criticism".

He told the hearing that when the child was admitted to St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, her body temperature had fallen so low that the hospital did not have a thermometer capable of reading it.

"She had been deprived of any form of human contact with little hope of any relief," he said.

"The appalling circumstances of her death are at the forefront of our minds."

Mr Garnham said a post-mortem examination showed Victoria had suffered systematic abuse, with skin changes revealing prolonged contact with urine and faeces.

Ulceration on her arms and legs were in keeping with binding her limbs and she was chronically malnourished, he said.

After Manning was arrested on February 26 last year following Victoria's death, his statement to the police made "chilling reading", Mr Garnham said.

The hearing was told Victoria had developed incontinence after she moved into Manning's flat with Kouao. Manning's response was to discipline her by slapping her but he soon moved on to using his fists, Mr Garnham said.

After Victoria began soiling the sofa where she slept, Manning and Kouao made her sleep naked in the bath without blankets.

"This cruelty was worsened by the fact that the bathroom was unheated," he said.

"Her arms and legs were bound with masking tape which must have made it impossible for her to get out of the bath and use the lavatory."

The inquiry opened in May but today is the first phase of the public hearing.

Lord Laming thanked Victoria's parents, who had flown in from the Ivory Coast to give oral evidence, and said their daughter's death had "shocked the nation".

He added: "It is my hope that every day of this inquiry we will have before us the memory of Victoria and what she suffered."

Lord Laming said recommendations from the inquiry may affect the way the police, NHS and social services carry out their functions in the future, but stressed the inquiry was "inquisitorial" in nature and not adversarial.