How could such awful abuse be ignored?

In a household where only a seven-year-old assumes adult responsibilities, terrible things will happen
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The Independent Online

The story is both shocking and horribly familiar: in modern Britain, it is apparently possible for a couple to keep five children in conditions of "utter squalor" without any adult deeming it necessary to inform the police or social services. Inquiry follows inquiry, new mechanisms are put in place, but a court case this week has revealed how five children almost starved to death in a British city while their parents watched DVDs downstairs.

In the end, their saviour was the couple's eldest daughter, who persuaded her parents to ring for an ambulance after one of her twin brothers, aged 12 months, appeared to have become lifeless. The call was made just in time for the little boy was skeletal, suffering from hypothermia and such severe lack of nourishment that a doctor said it was the worst case of malnutrition he had seen outside the developing world. Both the twins were covered in excrement, and one was passing live maggots into his nappy.

The couple's three older children, now aged eight, four and three, were also living among dog and human excrement, sleeping on urine-soaked mattresses and wearing soiled clothes. The details of the case - the twins were only 40 per cent of the weight expected of one-year-old children - are so dreadful that they bring to mind the inmates of Nazi concentration camps. But all this happened only last year, in Sheffield. "Behind the closed doors of your home your children were being slowly starved to death," the Recorder of Sheffield, Alan Goldsack, told the couple. "I can recall very few cases where parents have treated their own children with such callous disregard for their well-being over such a prolonged period of time." He sentenced Sarah Whittaker and David Askew, both 24, to seven years each in prison after they admitted five charges of child cruelty.

After hearing that the children's plight had not been reported to social services, the judge observed that "most members of the public will not begin to understand how in the 21st century children can slip through the net in the way yours did". Alan Jones, chairman of the Sheffield area child protection committee, said he deeply regretted that the system had been unable to prevent the "severe neglect" of the five children. They are now in council care and an inquiry has been launched; the children are said to be in good health, although one of the twins may have permanent damage to his sight and hearing.

What appears to have happened in this case, however, is not just a failure of the authorities in the period immediately before the children's condition was discovered. Askew and Whittaker had left a previous home so dirty that the new tenants took a year to clean it up; police officers who went to the house where the children were found almost vomited when they searched the filthy bedrooms and kitchen. It is hard to believe that such filth and squalor failed to attract attention, even if neighbours were only concerned about their own hygiene.

It was said in court that relatives who babysat for the couple knew about the children's state of neglect, but merely told Whittaker and Askew to "sort out" their childcare arrangements. They must be added to the list of adults who failed to act, leaving the parents to continue their neglect - and their eldest daughter as the only one who tried to make things more comfortable for her brothers and sisters.

Psychoanalysts sometimes talk about "parentified" children, who are expected to assume grown-up responsibilities in households where the real adults are inadequate. There could hardly be a more dramatic case than the eldest child in this particular family. Equally striking is the fact that the parents appear to have been so out of it that they hadn't noticed their son's critical condition, calling for an ambulance either in a panic or without realising that they would be arrested.

"It was your choice to have children," the judge said at the end of the trial at Sheffield Crown Court, specifically ruling out the possibility that either parent was of low intelligence or suffering from mental illness. But the evidence suggests that the couple were completely unable to look after the children they already had or to prevent more being conceived; Whittaker had an abortion while on remand for the child cruelty offences. She first became pregnant at 15, while still a child herself, and had a number of miscarriages and terminations, as well as the children she went on to neglect. Teenage pregnancy is a significant social problem in this country, where we have one of the highest rates in western Europe, but figures published this month show that the programme to cut the rate has faltered. The number of 16-year-olds becoming pregnant in England increased from 12,259 in 2001 to 12,672 in 2002; the number of 17-year-olds conceiving also rose (to 19,283) in the same period.

In South Yorkshire, media attention has until now focused on Rotherham, where an 11-year-old girl became pregnant in 1999. Two years later a 12-year-old Rotherham girl conceived, and in April 2002 it was reported that the first girl was expecting her second child, this time by her 17-year-old boyfriend. Rotherham's unenviable reputation as the UK capital of under-age sex prompted a number of government initiatives, and between 1998 and 2000 the conception rate among under-16s in the town dropped by more than 17 per cent.

There is a considerable body of work on the long-term effects of teenage pregnancy, and it throws a great deal of light on the Sheffield case. Having a teen-birth, particularly under the age of 18, makes it "more difficult to find and retain a partner", according to research published last year. Teenage mothers are more likely to pair up with "unemployment-prone and lower-earning men", are much less likely to become home-owners and their living standard is about 20 per cent lower than that of their peers.

In the Sheffield case, neglect of the children seems to have been linked with heavy drinking; seven empty cans of lager and a bottle of wine were found by police in the living-room. A picture begins to emerge of a couple who used alcohol and the fantasy world of TV and DVDs to avoid adult responsibilities, which had begun to fall on Whittaker while she was only a child herself. It appears that the couple behaved for much of the time as though their children simply did not exist.

None of this excuses Whittaker or Askew but it goes some way to explaining the otherwise remarkable claim made by defence lawyers at the trial, who said that neither of them had acted out of sadism. In a household where only a seven-year-old assumes adult responsibilities, terrible things happen - but it is clear from the trial that that evasion extended beyond the couple to their relatives and others who knew about their behaviour.

In other words, the dreadful events that unfolded in a courtroom this week began almost a decade ago, when an under-age girl became pregnant and was allowed to go on getting pregnant, eventually retreating into a fantasy world with an equally inadequate partner. The question that needs to be asked is not just why so many people failed to alert the police and social services, but why Whittaker and her growing family were not formally recognised as being at risk a long time ago. Instead, she and Askew went on having children, passing the damage on to the next generation.