Home alone with a murderer

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The Independent Online
TONI DALES died in February 1992 when she was not yet four years old. The man in whose home she lived threw her against a wall and broke her skull. Glen McPherson, who was 26 years old, was jailed for life recently for her murder.

Her world was a place where men may menace women and children with impunity. And the report on the inquiry into her case, published this month, illustrates the paralysis of the state when confronted by a deadly man. Despite the protests of mothers in her Middlesbrough community, none of the state agencies that scrutinised, patrolled or policed her neighbourhood pooled their powers to speak to her, to take her side, or save her life. They did not respond to the danger signals that were clearly scripted on this child's body and in her behaviour.

None succeeded in confronting her killer, who had a long history of attacking women and children, but who was only one violent man among many, according to the bold inquiry into Cleveland's failure to stop Toni Dales's suffering. The inquiry, led by Paul Knight, a National Children's Bureau consultant, reaches beyond the deadly individual to the systems that maintain dangerous men.

Those mothers were treated disrespectfully by agencies that failed to create a coalition with the people trying to keep the peace in an area 'bombarded' by men's violence against women and children. It was not that the child's immediate community was dangerous, it was that the state offered little or no support to those who challenged these men or who were victimised by them.

Their experience endorses the inquiry's conclusion that none of the statutory agencies, from police to social services and probation, is 'recognising or acting on the seriousness of this situation for women and children'. What is needed is 'a concerted effort locally to tackle the scale of violence towards women', says the report. This is of the greatest importance. This is the second stringent inquiry in the Nineties to alert the Government to the connection between the needless death of a child and men's violence.

The report into the death of five-year- old Sukina, a child in Avon whose body showed evidence of at least 50 blows, warned that 'domestic violence' camouflaged the degree of danger. Nine months before her father killed Sukina, he tied her mother to a chair and beat her for many hours. That was described at a case conference as a 'domestic incident'.

That report asked the Government to commission research into what is known about violence and its implications for child protection. The Department of Health and the Home Office declined to implement that recommendation.

John Fitzgerald, whose consultancy, The Bridge, produced the report, warns against assigning violence to certain classes of people and places. 'Violence against women is tolerated irrespective of where they live. Communities don't accept violence - they are afraid of it.'

Workers are made scapegoats in child death scandals, but fear that panics a mother or child also paralyses professionals.

What the Toni Dales inquiry uncovered, however, was that when alarmed neighbours alerted professionals they were scornfully dismissed. Neighbours expressing concern should be treated 'like any other referring agency', insists the report.

The challenge of this case extends far beyond Toni Dales and Glen McPherson. It disturbs the conventions of civil liberty - a man's right to privacy - and the effective ordinance of state partnership with parents.

McPherson had a long criminal record of violence towards several women, including Toni's mother, and to children and friends. But that vital information was never given by police to the probation service, which was involved because of a separate conviction for violence. Nor was it shared with other childcare workers. Had his record been known, the recurrent evidence of the child's endangerment might have been noticed and not neglected.

His record, her despair - nursery staff noted that she 'stands alone and cries, puts her face down in her hands and paces backwards and forwards' - her many injuries, and her mother's fear might have been used to form a profile of her assailant and a plan for her protection.

Her death is the epitaph to an era: it happened in the county of Cleveland, where child protection professionals are now nice to each other after all that nastiness six years ago. Her death attracted no lament this month from Stuart Bell, the Middlesbrough MP who led the fathers' campaign against evidence of child sex abuse in 1987.

It seems that the professionals in this case were too nice, too informal, too cosy. They did not challenge each other. 'If multi-agency work remains informal, if decisions aren't documented, then nothing can be reviewed - and criticised,' warns a senior officer in the Metropolitan Police. Neither does it encourage professionals to challenge the people who put children at risk. That, says the inquiry, is the legacy of the Butler-Sloss report into the Cleveland child sexual abuse crisis in 1987. The problem was that the reform of professional manners and procedures did not necessarily lead to reform of practice.

There is an 'anxiety about being direct with parents', says the report. Toni Dales's nursery, which worked with many children at risk, was 'afraid to further alienate parents by challenging their practices'.

When, after violence to Toni, the police concluded there was not enough evidence to charge McPherson, the considerations which determined whether a prosecution could be brought were allowed to overshadow the child's need for protection. The professionals never met to pool data, to discern a pattern in her precarious life.

They blamed the mother for 'poor parenting', but did not confront the man who bruised her. While McPherson was on probation there were nine recorded incidents of violence against the mother and child.

Twenty-five children were on the 'at risk register' in Toni Dales's primary school. Seven were in her class. They at least had a status she never achieved. Fifty cases of children registered as 'at risk' were 'stacked' by her local social services, unallocated to anyone's attention because that is how social services are these days.

The Home Office, unusually, is targeted in the report for undermining the probation service's prevention work and failing to link violent offenders with domestic crime.

Another child abuse specialist said that the Government was refusing to see that 'child protection procedures are the only system available to us to investigate dangerousness in everyday life, that make the links between apparently aberrant acts and the systems that sustain them'.

These child death inquiries have shown the symbiosis between a child's safety and community safety, between marauding masculinity and a mute state. This must now be translated into the language of law and order, community policing and politics.

Investigation into Inter-Agency Practice Following Cleveland Area Child Protection Committee's Report Concerning the Death of Toni Dales. Cleveland County Council/National Children's Bureau.

'Sukina' - An evaluation report into the circumstances leading to her death. Avon County Council and Department of Health.

(Photograph omitted)