Council apologises over baby death

EXCLUSIVEBy Benedict O'ConnorA LEADING councillor has apologised for the catalogue of failures that led to the death of toddler Emily Wilkinson.It is the second time in the past six months that Suffolk County Council has been forced to make an apology over failings that have led to the death of a youngster.

EXCLUSIVE

By Benedict O'Connor

A LEADING councillor has apologised for the catalogue of failures that led to the death of toddler Emily Wilkinson.

It is the second time in the past six months that Suffolk County Council has been forced to make an apology for the actions of its social services department following the death of a child.


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Last year Suffolk County Council's director of social care services, Anthony Douglas, apologised following the death of 16-month-old Robbie Taylor, from Knodishall, near Leiston, who died in August last year after drowning in a kitchen bin filled with water and cleaning fluid.

Mr Douglas said a letter from the toddler's father, expressing concerns over the boy's welfare seven days before his death, had stayed in the administrative system in Ipswich.

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As a result it never reached a social worker, who would have been detailed to see the family and make an assessment of the risk to the child.

Robbie Taylor died 18 months after Emily Wilkinson drowned in her grandmother's pond in Great Bradley, near Haverhill - despite county council claims it had “improved exponentially” since her death in February 2003.

Emily's parents Richard and Karen Wilkinson, from Brandon, who shared a history of domestic violence and serious neglect, had allowed their 22-month-old daughter to wander off.

Following a damning report from the Suffolk Area Child Protection Committee, Suffolk County Council has expressed its regret and admitted errors had been made in picking up on the horrific circumstances in which Emily was raised and ultimately met her death.

But now, as the true extent of the squalor and neglect that characterised Emily's brief life has become clear, an apology has finally been forthcoming.

Tony Lewis, the council's portfolio holder for children and young people, said it was sorry for not picking up on the shocking neglect dished out by the Wilkinsons, who began 30-month prison sentences for manslaughter on Friday.

Mr Lewis said: “Of course we are sorry that such a tragedy happened, our job for children and young people is to safeguard them and try to secure them a better future.

“This hits us very hard, it has a very big effect on the people who work in that part of the service.

“People aren't social workers for the money, they do it with a sense of conviction to the people they are trying to look after. Our carers were sorry, it goes without saying, any premature death of a young person is terrible.”

But Mr Lewis added it was impossible to avoid such tragedies, even though the scathing Suffolk Area Child Protection Committee report into social services concluded Emily's death had been “an avoidable accident”.

The report criticised Suffolk County Council social services for failing to chase up concerns from Cambridgeshire County Council after the Wilkinsons had moved from Bartlow to Great Bradley.

The relevant documents had originally been sent to the wrong address, but when they were eventually tracked down social workers failed to call an urgent meeting to assess Emily's future.

Later evidence showed the Wilkinsons' home had been littered with broken glass, with vomit in a sink and a loaf of bread discarded in Emily's urine stained cot.

The toddler had been placed in care in Cambridgeshire, which should have immediately rung alarm bells with Suffolk staff.

But Mr Lewis claimed that in spite of the report's conclusion that repeated reports of neglect were not properly explored, such tragedies could not be avoided.

Furthermore, he said it was an isolated incident among many thousands of people dealt with by Suffolk social services.

“This is a real tragedy, but they happen all over the country. Within an individual family it has an enormous effect, but we are dealing with something like 2,000 contacts a day from various parts of the public,” added Mr Lewis.

“You can use all the cliches until the cows come home. One death is too many, but it's the same as a child being run over by a car, we can put in speed cameras, we didn't cause it, but we did what we could to stop it.”

Mr Lewis repeated earlier statements from the council that it had “improved exponentially” since Emily's death.

But 18 months after her death came the apology from Mr Douglas to the family of Robbie Taylor following his drowning.

“We would like to offer our sincere condolences to the family on the tragic death of their youngest son,” he said.

“I can confirm that the father wrote to us, asking us to visit the child. The correspondence was not forwarded to our local office covering Knodishall before the child's death, so social workers could act in a speedy and efficient manner.

“This should have been done straight away. There was a breakdown in the administrative procedures. As a result of what happened our procedures for handling letters have been upgraded.”

Suffolk County Council's claim to have improved since Emily's death have also met with scorn from West Suffolk MP Richard Spring and Emily's grandmother Bridget Willis.

Mr Spring has called for more evidence that further children will not be allowed to suffer the same tragic fate as Emily.

benedict.o'connor@eadt.co.uk

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