Did a devout Christian poison dying children?

Community nurse is under siege after leak reveals seven-month investigation into her treatment of terminally ill youngsters
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The Independent Online

The late-night call would send a chill through the heart of any parent who had lost a child. Throughout Wednesday evening and into the early hours of yesterday morning, a team of police officers and health workers frantically contacted 18 families to tell them they were investigating whether their children had died in suspicious circumstances.

The late-night call would send a chill through the heart of any parent who had lost a child. Throughout Wednesday evening and into the early hours of yesterday morning, a team of police officers and health workers frantically contacted 18 families to tell them they were investigating whether their children had died in suspicious circumstances.

The subject of the inquiry is a community nurse who treats children in the Essex area. Relatives and neighbours described her as a devout Christian and dedicated health worker.

The inquiry is thought to centre on allegations that she gave overdoses of painkillers to terminally ill children in the three years to 1999. The children involved are thought to be nine boys and nine girls aged between eight weeks and 17 years. The families of the dead youngsters were unaware until yesterday that an investigation into the deaths of their sons and daughters had been going on for more than seven months.

The authorities only informed the families after they discovered that details of the secret police inquiry were about to be published in the morning. Officials were up until 5am ensuring that all the families knew about the case.

Despite the disturbing nature of the allegations, the police have stressed that they are still trying to establish whether any offence has been committed and that the nurse, who is single, has not been arrested or even questioned yet.

The woman at the centre of the inquiry was under siege by journalists and camera crews in Benfleet, near Southend, yesterday. She had taken refuge with her parents, who live just around the corner from her, but eventually broke cover and left with a blanket over her head in a car driven by an unknown man.

Her employer, the South Essex Mental Health and Community Care NHS Trust, obtained a High Court injunction banning the identification of the nurse, her patients or their families.

Her aunt said that her niece was a devout, born-again Christian who told her family she had been suspended from work but did not explain to them why.

"We all come from a very strong Christian background and believe in God," she said. "When I first heard it on the news I knew that [she] had some problems at work and had been suspended but she never told the family exactly why.

"I pray to God that it wasn't her who did this. She is a strange sort of girl and is always very quiet. When she was suspended she said, 'I don't know what I'll do if I lose my job, it's my life.' She always took her job very seriously," she said.

Neighbours were shocked by the allegations. "She loves children and I think she started as a nursery nurse," one said. "It's scary to hear something like that. [She] is a lovely girl who went to school with my sons."

Another said: "She seemed to be very dedicated to her work. She was always leaving home very early to go to Southend General Hospital and she would often be called out late at night as well."

But the mother of a boy aged five said she was upset by the attitude of the nurse while treating her son three years ago. The woman, from Southend, told the BBC: "She was very cold-hearted in her approach to my son, very brutal. She used to come and wrap him in a blanket and pin him down and force the tube down his nose and she offered him no words of compassion or care at all. I felt that she was unnecessarily brutal towards him."

The children's nurse was suspended in September after complaints involving an administrative matter.

But while her employers were examining that case the more serious allegations arose. The police were called in at the end of last year and set up a criminal inquiry that is being dealt with by a team of 20 officers, although most of the detectives are working on other cases as well.

As part of the investigation, Essex Police contacted other hospitals the nurse has worked for, including Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. So far, the main thrust of the inquiry has been to question her colleagues in Essex and examine the records of children she has treated.

More than half of the bodies are believed to have been cremated, and none of the others have been exhumed for tests. When terminally ill children die, post-mortem examinations are not done unless foul play is suspected or the death came at an unexpected time.

The nurse worked with a small community-based team that visits and treats patients at home. Her job is highly skilled and would include work with children with terminal illnesses such as cancer as well as treatment of long-term chronic conditions such as cerebral palsy and heart disorders.

Part of her duties would be to carry out medical procedures such as changing drips, giving injections, and fitting tubes in patients' throats to allow them to feed. Although they cannot prescribe drugs, community nurses are able to determine dosages from a doctor's prescription.

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