Leading Article: A foreseeable tragedy

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IT IS easy to dispense blame when a small, elderly woman, clearly at risk for years from violent, drunken and abusive neighbours on a council estate, has been murdered by one of her persecutors, aided by a friend. Both the police and the local council in Aberdare, south Wales, appear to have gravely under-estimated the plight of Edna Phillips, aged 70 and half-blind, who last summer was strangled with her dog's chain and slashed many times with a Stanley knife in her own home on the Penywaun estate. Two 17-year-old girls, high on drink and drugs at the time, were sentenced for her murder at Cardiff Crown Court on Monday to be detained indefinitely at Her Majesty's pleasure.

With hindsight, the warning signs seem to have been unambiguous. Six weeks before her death Miss Phillips even wrote to her MP, Ann Clwyd, describing how she had been burgled and how unseriously the police appeared to have taken the incident, even though she had lost most of the portable contents of her home. Ms Clwyd duly intervened. Everyone seems to have known who committed the burglary (the two murderers eventually confessed). But the police say sufficient evidence could not be found. It is hard to believe that competent community policing could not have prevented tragedy.

For years Miss Phillips had been the victim of a campaign of terror by neighbours, whose daughter was eventually one of her murderers, simply because she complained about their drunkenness and loud music. No doubt on such estates many people ask to be moved, and no doubt local authorities are generally hard-pressed to find alternative accommodation. There is also the question of whether it would be fair to put anyone else next to such neighbours. None the less, the case for relocating Miss Phillips must have been very strong.

Yet the failure seems to go wider - and not just because of the feeling of hopelessness that envelopes this desperately poor part of the Welsh valleys. Old people are in their way as vulnerable as children. Yet there is no equivalent of the Children Act to protect them. Local authorities do admirable work in sustaining the housebound and infirm. But their social departments do not maintain 'old people at risk' registers, as they are obliged to do for children suspected of being abused in the home. Since local authorities will from 1 April be shouldering responsibility for care in the community of the mentally ill and handicapped, not to mention the disabled, they are likely to have less rather than more time to devote to the elderly but mobile.

That does not exonerate either the council or the police for apparently succumbing to the prevailing sense of helplessness in the case of Miss Phillips. But, no less than the case of the murder of two-year-old James Bulger, it brings the debate back to those painful questions about the roots of crime in today's society. How can the cycle of violence, which leads battered children to become batterers, be broken? How can adolescents be discouraged from relieving the grimness of their lives in drink, drugs and steadily escalating crime? It is the police and social workers who have to cope with the consequences. They deserve sympathy and support. But they cannot avoid a share of the blame when disasters occur.