Social services slow to support mother who killed her disabled sons, says inquiry

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An independent inquiry into the deaths of Robbie and Richie Turnbull, profoundly handicapped brothers who were killed by their mother two years ago on the Isle of Wight, has concluded that social services and health authorities did not provide enough support for the family.

Janquil Melody Turnbull was given a two-year suspended sentence last year after admitting the manslaughter of Robbie, 23, and Richie, 20, on 20 October 1999. The boys both suffered from cerebral palsy and could do nothing for themselves. Melody, 53, and her husband, Ron, 57, had devoted their lives to looking after their helpless sons at home.

Yesterday's inquiry report by Barbara McIntosh, of the Community Care Development Centre at King's College London, concluded that while the Isle of Wight Council's social services, health authority and NHS Trust did not fail in their basic statutory duties, they were slow to meet Robbie's and Richie's needs. It found community care assess-ments had taken eight months.

The report, commissioned by the authorities involved, also criticised the local social services' practice of not requesting information from clients' previous local authorities. That meant assessments had to start from scratch, adding to the delays.

The report also concluded that the authorities should have involved Mr and Mrs Turnbull more in planning for their sons and that communications between staff and the Turnbulls could have been better.

Co-ordination between the agencies was also criticised, as was inadequate guidance of the staff's work. And the report said that staff might not have fully acknowledged the stress the Turnbulls were under.

On the night she spoon-fed her sons mashed potatoes, laced with painkillers, and then smothered them, Mrs Turnbull was convinced that Robbie and Richie were going to be taken from her and put in residential care. The Turnbulls had moved house before because they feared other local authorities might take their sons into residential care as a cheap option. After a previous move, the family ended up living on a barge.

When his sons died, Mr Turnbull was on the mainland frantically looking for new accommodation as the lease on their home expired. Later, Mrs Turnbull described the killings to police. "It was like being in someone else's body. All I kept thinking was that I couldn't do it any more."

But Ms McIntosh found no evidence to support the Turnbulls' claim that the authorities were secretly working to put their sons into residential care and she even praised some staff for "going the extra mile".

She described relations between the parents and the Isle of Wight authorities as "tense" when the killings took place. Yesterday, they remained that way.

The Turnbulls declined an invitation to attend yesterday's press conference to release the report, after studying its contents over the weekend. Mr Turnbull said his wife, still struggling to come to terms with killing the two sons who had been her entire life, had never shirked from her personal responsibility for their deaths. However, they had not had support on the Isle of Wight and the report was not critical enough, he said.

Mr Turnbull was bitterly disappointed that the report laid no individual blame. "It is a sanitised version of events," he said, "short on specifics, liberally embellished with untruths, selective omissions and subjective speculation."

He also said it took no account of the documented evidence he had offered to the inquiry team but which it had declined to accept. Ms McIntosh said she did not know which documents Mr Turnbull was referring to and that the inquiry team had interviewed the Turnbulls at home for three hours.

She was anxious not to be too hard on the authorities involved. She said that sadly the tragedy could have happened in any authority in Britain. There was nothing peculiar about the Isle of Wight's practices. Caring for the profoundly handicapped in the community was still very new to Britain, she said, and there was much to be learnt. Some local authorities were short of funding for the increased demand for community care for the profoundly disabled. "I think the public sector did try ... and the Turnbulls understandably wanted the best," Ms McIntosh said.

The Turnbulls had told her that they felt the status of their sons in their community was low and services were not geared to them. Ms McIntosh said the way forward was to enhance the value of disabled people in the community.

Charles Waddicor, the Isle of Wight's director of social services and housing, offered his sympathy to the Turnbulls and apologised for the shortcomings listed in the report. He said the Department of Health had been made aware of some of the findings and that "very few authorities in this country have got things right". He said the recommendations would be implemented and communication between bodies improved.

Mr Turnbull said that while he was disappointed, he did not know how to take the case further. He believes there are many other parents suffering as they try to care for disabled children. "I'm torn between the grief continuing to fight brings and the sheer injustice of all this," he said.