Minister announces review over baby's death

By John-Paul Ford Rojas,Shenai Raif,Pa
Tuesday 11 November 2008 15:54

Children's minister Beverley Hughes announced a nationwide independent review of child protection services today after the harrowing death of a toddler.

The 17-month-old boy, who cannot be identified, was on the child protection register with Haringey social services in north London.

His mother's 32-year-old boyfriend and another man, Jason Owen, 36, were convicted at the Old Bailey today of causing or allowing his death.

The boy suffered more than 50 injuries over eight months of abuse, during which he was seen 60 times by health or social workers, in a case described as worse than that of Victoria Climbie.

Two days before the toddler died in August last year, a doctor failed to spot his broken back or ribs.

The case echoes that of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old who died after police and care workers failed to save her - also in Haringey, in 2000.

Following that case, an independent inquiry by Lord Laming called for a series of reforms to ensure child protection.

Today Ms Hughes said: "To ensure that the reforms that the Government set out following Lord Laming's Inquiry are being implemented systematically, Ed Balls and I have today asked Lord Laming to prepare an independent report of progress being made across the country."

Ms Hughes said: "This is a very tragic case that makes all of us question how someone could do such a terrible thing to a child and set out to deceive the very people trying to help.

"Safeguarding children is undoubtedly Government's top priority and we expect it to be the top priority for local agencies too.

"In response to Lord Laming's Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, we introduced fundamental reforms to help keep children safe.

"Local areas are also now required to review every case where a child is harmed or killed, and neglect or abuse is suspected.

"We will be considering carefully the serious case review and whether there needs to be a further investigation of child protection procedures and practices amongst local agencies in Haringey specifically.

"It is vital that everyone caring for children in whatever capacity, is on their guard, alert to the possibility of risk, strives continuously for the best possible practice and sees the world through the eyes of the child."

Her comments came as Lord Laming described the latest case as "dispiriting".

He told BBC Radio 4's The World At One: "It would be awful wherever it happened, but it seems particularly sad that it has happened in the same area where Victoria experienced this awful cruelty and a terrible death and involved the very same services.

"Of course it is dispiriting."

Mor Dioum, director of the Victoria Climbie Foundation, which was set up to improve child protection, said: "This case is worse than Climbie. The signs were there but were not followed."

There were "systematic and operational failures that led to the tragic and sad death of such a beautiful child".

He called for a public inquiry into the failings.

In today's case, the child's 27-year-old mother has already pleaded guilty to the same charge as the two men. All three will be sentenced on 15 December.

One of the men convicted was her 32-year-old partner. He was cleared of murder.

The jury was told to convict him of the lesser charge if it could not agree on who caused the injuries in the house where three adults were living.

The family, from Haringey, north London, cannot be named for legal reasons.

Jason Owen, 36, from Bromley, south east London, the other man convicted today, was a guest in their home.

The court heard that during eight months of abuse, the happy baby boy had his curly golden locks shaved off and became unrecognisable.

Attempts were made to hide the crime from social services and health visitors, including smearing the baby in chocolate.

In the 48 hours before the boy was found dead in his blood-spattered cot, a doctor failed to spot his broken spine.

And police told the mother she would not be prosecuted after being arrested twice for suspected child cruelty.

Gillie Christou, in charge of social workers looking after children on the register in Haringey, told the court she had agreed to keep the baby with his mother.

She said: "I made the decision at the time based on the material in front of me and based on the background to the case."

A detective in the case said the boy had more than 50 injuries, 15 of them to the mouth.

He described the boyfriend as "sadistic - fascinated with pain". He had Nazi memorabilia in the house.

The mother was "a slob, completely divorced from reality. She was living in a dream world and put her lover before her child. She closed her eyes to what was going on".

After the case, police said they had complied with a multi-agency long-term care plan for the family.

But procedures have now been toughened up to give police more confidence in challenging decisions.

Detective Superintendent Caroline Bates said police errors were made which caused a delay at the start of the abuse inquiry, but these had not been significant to the outcome.

She said: "With hindsight, having the benefit of a major investigation, we know quite clearly that the mother was lying and trying to subvert agencies involved with the family."

The mother had appeared to be co-operating with agencies but "she constantly conspired to prevent us knowing what was going on".

In June "police officers felt very strongly that he should not be returned" to his mother.

A police inspector asked twice if the threshold had been reached to start care proceedings.

"This was a huge tragedy which should have been avoided. If we had only known the truth about the adults in the house," said Ms Bates.

Great Ormond Street Hospital, which provides paediatric services to children from Haringey, said Dr Sabah Al-Zayyat, who was involved in the failed clinic check, is no longer working there.

After the verdicts, Judge Stephen Kramer excused members of the jury from serving for 10 years.

He told them: "You have heard evidence of a harrowing nature and you have seen things which in the course of your everyday life you would not be expected to see."

Local MP Lynne Featherstone said the child, to whom she referred as Baby P, had fallen through "safety net after safety net" and called for an independent investigation by the Children's Commissioner.

"The Children's Act was borne out of tragedy in Haringey after the death of Victoria Climbie.

"Yet eight years after her death, the law created to stop this happening again has failed to prevent a similar tragedy in the same borough."

Sharon Shoesmith, chair of Haringey Local Safeguarding Children Board, defended the council's actions and blamed legal advice taken a week before the baby's death for the fact he was not taken into care.

An internal review of the case found that there were "numerous examples" of good practice although there had been "weaknesses" in information flow.

But councillor Robert Gorrie, Lib Dem leader of the opposition at Haringey Council, said: "Closed-door reviews by the council are completely inadequate.

"The credibility of Haringey's child protection system has been called into question again."

NSPCC acting chief executive Wes Cuell said professionals dedicated to protecting children were being "overwhelmed" by the scale of child abuse and supporting them must be a priority for the Government.