Dead girl 'had been abandoned by her mother'

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A girl aged six, who died after she was allegedly abused and neglected by her father and stepmother, had been placed on the child protection register years earlier, a court was told yesterday.

Lauren Wright had become a cause for "grave concern" to Hertfordshire County Council social services because of the way she was being treated by her natural mother, Jennifer Bennett, Norwich Crown Court was told. Ms Bennett, from Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, abandoned her daughter on a holiday in Turkey in 1999 and scratched the girl's name from her passport, Joanna Greenberg QC, for the defence, said.

Craig Wright responded by separating from Ms Bennett. He was granted a care order for Lauren and the two of them moved to Welney, Norfolk. He and the girl's stepmother, Tracey Wright, are accused of wilful neglect and manslaughter. They deny the charges.

The court was told Lauren had allegedly become the victim of abuse for a second time when Mr Wright moved in with his mother, Christine, in 1998. The 38-year-old became besotted with Tracey, 31, the next-door neighbour, and they married the following summer.

Although Lauren appeared happy as a bridesmaid on the day of the wedding, she was soon displaying the symptoms of a distressed child. Her grandmother, Christine Wright, told the jury she was worried because Lauren was visiting her next door every day and had become alarmingly "clingy".

She said: "She said she loved me all the time. She used to sit on my knee. I felt she was not giving next door a chance by keeping coming back to me."

Over the following months Lauren's physical state began to deteriorate, Mrs Wright told the trial. She became clumsy, was covered in bruises and on a rare occasion when she wore a T-shirt she resembled a "stick insect".

In the week before Lauren died, Tracey had told her that the child had gastroenteritis and she had taken Lauren to see the doctor. Mrs Wright said Lauren was sick all week and was not eating.

On the day of Lauren's death, Mrs Wright said, an "hysterical" Tracey had burst into her house shortly after 2pm, saying: "Help me. It's Lauren. Help me."

She went next door to find the lifeless Lauren lying on her bunk bed. Mrs Wright broke down as she described how she tried to give the child mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Just days after Lauren's death, her stepmother was laughing and joking with friends in the local pub, one neighbour told the court.

Sylvia Kent, a barmaid, said Mr Wright appeared "subdued" but she could hardly believe that his wife was in such good spirits when she sat around a table with her friends.

Mrs Kent said Mr Wright had hardly interrupted his drinking routine, despite the loss of his daughter. He was in the pub at lunchtime on the day of her death, 6 May, when his sister rushed in to say something was wrong. By mid evening he was back at the bar, Mrs Kent told the court.

Another neighbour of the Wrights, Martin Kent, told how he visited their home in March 2000 and saw Lauren being made to stand in front of a solid fuel burner for more than an hour as a punishment for soiling her bed.

He said Mr Wright was not in the house but his wife and her other children were watching television while the youngster stood with her face towards the burning stove.

The trial continues.