The shocking truth about child abuse in Northern Ireland

Kathryn Torney
Friday 22 May 2009 11:18 BST

Disturbing details of children being seriously injured and even killed through abuse in Northern Ireland are exposed by the Belfast Telegraph today.

The case reviews — obtained through a Freedom of Information request — have already resulted in the Children's Commissioner calling for an urgent meeting with the Health Minister when she was informed of the shocking content.

The cases highlighted today include a six and a half month old baby girl found to have a fractured arm and leg when she died, a boy whose wrist was injured when he was tied up by his foster father and 61 recorded injuries to six children in one family.

The Department of Health said that all of the cases occurred prior to January 2007 — when a programme of improving child protection services got under way.

A spokeswoman said: “The vast majority of abuse/neglect happens in the family home and is primarily linked to parental mental health, drug and alcohol abuse or domestic violence. Social work interventions save many children every year.”

Raped, beaten and starved – horrifying files are opened on youngsters who suffered terrible fates

Details of the suffering endured by children at the centre of some of Northern Ireland's most serious child abuse and neglect cases can be revealed today by the Belfast Telegraph.

Confidential documents relating to child murder and cases of serious physical abuse have been released to the Belfast Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act.

The information was provided by the Health and Social Care Board's four Area Child Protection Committees (ACPCs) and the papers outline heartbreaking and tragic stories involving very young babies, children and teenagers.

The cases include:

* A baby being seriously injured by his father who had been convicted of the manslaughter of another of his children;

* A child living in foster care being forced to scavenge for food in bins;

* A 14-year-old girl raped by her adoptive father. He killed himself when she spoke out about what had been happening to her.

All of the reviews make recommendations on how the cases could have been handled better. Many raise serious concerns about how cases were dealt with by both social services and the police.

The Belfast Telegraph requested the executive summaries of all of the Case Management Reviews (CMRs) carried out in Northern Ireland since 2003 — which is when the Department of Health last revised its policy on child protection.

The new policy states that ACPCs should always undertake a case review when a child dies and abuse or neglect is known or suspected to be a factor.

The committees should also consider undertaking a review where a child has sustained a potentially life-threatening injury or impairment of health or development through abuse or neglect; or if a case gives rise to concerns about the way in which professionals and services worked together to safeguard children.

The reviews are similar to Serious Case Reviews carried out in England.

Just last week a report into the highly-publicised death of ‘Baby P' in 2007 stated that health workers had missed dozens of opportunities to identify abuse being suffered by the tragic 17-month-old before his death.

The youngster, now known as Peter, was on the at-risk register when he was found dead in his blood-spattered cot in Haringey, London and had suffered 50 injuries.

He had 60 visits from social workers, doctors and police over the last eight months of his life.

The completed case management reviews relating to children in Northern Ireland which were sent to the Belfast Telegraph range in length from 10 to 40 pages.

One other completed case has been withheld because it still has to come before a coroner’s inquest.

A further nine are still being worked on — including the death of a three-month-old baby and the separate deaths of two 16-year-olds.

Two of the reviews carried out by the Western ACPC have been incorporated into independent inquiries and have already been published. These are the deaths of mother and daughter Madeleine and Lauren O'Neill and the McGovern/McElhill family in a house fire in Omagh.

The executive summaries contain pseudonyms in place of the children's real names and references to specific geographical locations have been removed to prevent any of the people involved being identified.

They all conclude with recommendations which aim to prevent similar cases happening again.

West Tyrone MLA Dr Kieran Deeny said: “We have seen what can happen in my own area where we had the awful tragedy involving the McElhill family and the house fire in Omagh.

“That is why it is so important for any suspected abuse to be reported.

“The public needs to be on the lookout.”

I want to know how lessons from these cases have been applied, insists Commisioner

Children’s Commissioner Patricia Lewsley has requested an urgent meeting with the Health Minister to discuss the case management review system — after being alerted by the Telegraph to the cases reported on today.

Her office also confirmed that the commissioner has not received copies of the case reviews.

Ms Lewsley said: “Given the dreadful ways in which the children who are subject to the reviews have been let down, the recommendations from each review must be implemented immediately to ensure that other children do not suffer the same abuse, and that they are properly protected from harm.

“I am seeking a response from the minister as to how the lessons learnt from the child death and serious abuse reviews over the last six years have being applied systematically to the child protection systems across Northern Ireland.

Patricia Lewsley: “If we are seeing the same systematic failures repeated, the question has to be asked if the death of the children in the later cases might not have been prevented.”

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said that the safety and protection of vulnerable children and young people is one of his highest priorities.

His department also confirmed that the number of children referred to social services has risen by 24.2% in the past five years.

The minister said: “I am investing over £13m to develop new family and child care services, which will include additional posts in child protection, gateway and family intervention teams and to strengthen public protection arrangements.

“Over the last few years, child protection services in Northern Ireland have been strengthened and there are much more robust links in place with other aspects of the healthcare system such as with GPs and health visitors.

“It is important that social workers have an opportunity to improve their practice. Case management reviews are an important part of this learning and help to ensure that effective systems are in place to prevent children from coming to harm.

“Social workers provide invaluable help and support to thousands of vulnerable families. Their excellent work with highly complex and difficult cases is often unrecognised, yet they make a huge difference to the lives of many children and families.”

The NSPCC has also called on all adults across Northern Ireland to take action if they have any concerns about the welfare of a child.

Between October 2008 and March 2009, there were 436 calls to the charity's helpline from people here concerned about children.

The helpline can be contacted on 0808 800 5000, or email


Northern Area Child Protection Committee

* Baby W: Aged 10 months, he was taken to hospital in 2000 and found to have multiple bruises, including to the head, a black eye and a number of old fractures. It was discovered that the father of the child had been sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for the manslaughter of his first child. The identity and background of the father were not known to Health and Social Services until the multiple bruising incident occurred. In 2001, the baby's father was convicted of grievous bodily harm with intent and two offences of common assault on another child. The baby's mother was convicted of cruelty and given a suspended sentence of 18 months. The CMR states: “Without doubt the most significant lesson to be learned from this case was the lack of a pro-active approach to tracking violent offenders in order to diminish the risk to children in the community.”

* Boy One, Girl One and Girl Two and their experience in foster care from 1979 to 1991. Report dated 2005. Criminal charges against Foster Carers X were dismissed in 2003. The summary focuses mainly on Boy One and Girl Two as the panel did not have consent to access the health care records of Girl One. It contains a catalogue of illnesses and concerns about the two children that went on for many years — including the boy scavenging in bins for food. He also had a number of concerning injuries. The summary report states: “...there was no indication from the records that, at reviews, concerns such as squints, enuresis (bedwetting), eczema, injuries or statements about looking like a victim of a concentration camp were ever examined with a view to understanding what was happening to these children.”

* It continues: “The panel was also concerned about the decision not to prosecute the foster father in 1991 when he had admitted tying up Boy One on a particular date causing to his wrist”. The report also notes that, aged 15, Boy One: “obsessive eater, ate animal excrement and own vomit”.

* Amy (report dated 2007): girl fof 14 who suffered from profound and multiple learning difficulties. She was blind, incontinent, couldn’t walk and had epilepsy. In 2001 she died five days after being taken to hospital with injuries found to be consistent with sexual abuse. The report states: “Expert evidence provided by two doctors is unequivocal in the view that Amy suffered injuries caused by an act which was neither accidental nor innocent. Her injuries were extensive.” There were no concerns in relation to Amy’s care at home. But: “There was an early belief that the perpetrator of the abuse was Amy’s maternal grandfather and efforts concentrated on proving this. The lack of any conviction means that children are still potentially at risk of abuse.”

* Holly and Peter L: Holly’s parents were both aged 15 at the time of her birth in 2003. Her mum Gina had a moderate to severe learning disability and was well known to police for anti-social behaviour. In January 2004, at the age of six and a half months Holly died. Examinations revealed a fracture to her arm and leg. There was no prosecution in relation to her death. Peter was born in 2005 but he was removed from his family’s care later that year. The report highlighted “some serious shortcomings in practice” including a failure to respond to indicators of possible child protection concern in relation to Holly, delays and poor communication of the investigation into her death and too great an optimism in planning for Peter’s welfare. The report says it was “a serious failing by agencies” not to act in relation to illegal sexual activity between Holly’s parents. The report continues: “It is not possible to conclude that agencies could necessarily have prevented Holly’s death.” However, it concludes that opportunities were missed for information to be shared with social services.

* McNeill Family (2007): The case centres on agency involvement with the family from 1991 to 2005. Five of the six children had moderate/severe learning difficulties. The parents also had learning disabilities. One child was taken into care, aged eight. The CMR identified a number of “very serious shortcomings” in agency involvement with the family over a long period of time. The key issues include: “The need to understand that children with learning difficulties and disabilities require the same levels of protection as all other children.” and “This case involved a total recorded number of 61 injuries to children, with most accepted as accidents, but with no analysis of the implication of this number in terms of neglectful parenting and supervision”.

Western Area Child Protection Committee

* Independent inquiry into the deaths of mother and daughter Madeleine (41) and Lauren (9) O’Neill. They were found dead at a house in Carryduff in 2005 soon after Mrs O’Neill was released from a psychiatric hospital in Londonderry. Madeleine had told health professionals of her suicidal intentions and that she would take her daughter with her. The damning inquiry report said that individual staff did not meet the professional standards expected of them.

* Independent inquiry into the deaths of Arthur McEhill, his partner Lorraine McGovern and their five children Caroline (13), Sean (7), Bellina (4), Clodagh (19 months) and 10-month-old James in November 2007. Arthur McElhill, a known sex offender, is believed to have deliberately started the fire. The review panel found that even though McElhill was a convicted sex offender, health and social services agencies had not shared information about him effectively.

* Child C: She and her brother were placed for adoption with Mr and Mrs E in 1997. C was then aged seven. In 2004, C called Mr E a rapist during a family row. Two days later, Mr E’s body was found near his car and in an apparent suicide note at the scene Mr E confirmed he had been abusing C. The Review Panel found no evidence that the decision by the PSNI not to investigate the abuse of C by Mr E was taken at a senior level or that it followed any detailed consultation with Social Services or other agency. The report also states: “C disclosed she had been physically abused and sexually abused by their birth mother’s ex-boyfriend. The review panel could find no evidence that this matter had been pursued by the PSNI or Social Services.” The report recommended that if a person alleged, or confirmed, to have sexually abused a child dies before the case can be investigated, the police and Social Services should look at all the surrounding circumstances to establish if other children have been abused and may need support.

* Baby B: No age given. C was a young single mother with two children – A and B. During 2004, C entered into another relationship with D, who had grown up in care. In 2005, domestic violence led to the police referring concern to the trust and the children’s names were placed on the Child Protection Register. In 2005, A woke her mother to say she could not rouse B. He was found dead in bed and the cause of death remains unclear. The main concerns include: “C’s failure to comply with agreed plans and arrangements both prior to and following B’s death should have been challenged and appropriate actions taken.” And, “Staff did not seem to fully understand the links between domestic violence and child protection.”

Taken from the Belfast Telegraph

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