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Page last updated at 16:59 GMT, Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Council was warned 'children would die'

Council bosses in Doncaster were warned four years ago that their actions were putting children's lives at risk. The council, which last year had double the national average number of children on its protection register, is currently under investigation following the deaths of seven children in the area.

Matt Prodger
by Matt Prodger

Doncaster council was told 'children will die'

A wooden cross in Edlington Cemetery, on the outskirts of Doncaster, marks the spot where Amy Howson is buried.

The 16-month-old baby was murdered two days before Christmas in 2007 by her father James. In an echo of the Baby P case last year, he had snapped his daughter's spine.

Amy was malnourished, dehydrated and had numerous fractures to her arms and legs.

Her mother, Tina Hunt, was convicted of cruelty. The family were known to Doncaster Social Services.

A few months later in another part of Doncaster, Alfie Goddard was squeezed, shaken, and thrown down the stairs of his home by his father.

He was three months old when he died.

Neighbours say the family were visited regularly by drug counsellors, and that social workers or health professionals visited as often as three times a week.

Amy and Alfie are two of seven children who have been the subject of serious case reviews in Doncaster since 2004.

Investigations

Serious case reviews, or SCRs, are multi-agency investigations carried out when abuse, neglect, or a failure by child protection agencies are known or suspected to have played a part in the death.

Andrea Jobling
Andrea Jobling says the council are liable for the death of her son

The children include Cameron McWilliams, a 10-year-old who hanged himself, and Warren Jobling, a disabled boy who was in respite care at the time of his death.

Warren's parents are suing Doncaster Council for, they say, failing to adequately monitor their son's carer.

Their solicitor Sarah Young says: "They felt something had gone badly wrong and they wanted answers. It's not about money. It's more about getting the answers and making sure it never happens again."

Doncaster Council will not comment on Warren's case while it is pending.

Only three of the serious case reviews have been published to date. They include a baby, known as Child A, who died in the same month as Amy.

The SCR said that Doncaster Social Services were "chaotic", "dangerous" and "totally inadequate."

In December, Ofsted rated Doncaster's child protection services among the worst in the country.

The following month the government announced an inquiry, and sent in investigators in February.

Doncaster Council also announced its own internal investigation.

Whistle-blower

One person who was not surprised by any of this is Sharon Docherty, a former child protection manager who left the council in 2006.

Doncaster Council controversies
2004: an independent report reveals a bullying culture in the council
2005: Westminster becomes alarmed by reports that the council is being poorly run
2006: the mayor and his chief executive, Susan Law, fall out after investigations by police over corruption allegations. No charges are brought, but infighting continues and Law is later paid off by the council
2007: an auditors report criticises relations between the mayor and councillors

She blames council bosses who embarked on a project to radically overhaul council services between 2004 and 2005.

At the time she was responsible for ensuring the implementation of the recommendations introduced nationwide, following the death of Victoria Climbie in Haringey in 2000.

She told Newsnight:

"When the new structure came out the lines of responsibility, the lines of accountability, the lines of access to support were so fudged so as to be nonexistent certainly as far as frontline workers were concerned. They were confused, they were upset, they just didn't know what was going to happen to them; a massive feeling of insecurity, low morale and gradually people began to leave."

To what extent did she think it would end up costing lives?

"It's actually something colleagues and I said to each other at the time: unfortunately, as a result of this a child will die."

It is something, she says, that her bosses were told too.

No confidence

Doncaster's problems also have a political dimension.

Protestors calling for the resignation of Doncaster's mayor
Protestors are calling for Mayor Martin Winter to resign

The council had barely recovered from the Donnygate corruption scandal of 10 years ago (when 21 councillors were convicted of fraud), when the current crisis broke.

Its mayor, Martin Winter, has faced fierce opposition from local politicians and activists.

In 2004, Winter recruited a new chief executive, Susan Law, and told her to shake up the council. What followed were the radical reforms that so alarmed Sharon Docherty and her colleagues.

Further controversies followed.

Newsnight has discovered that two cabinet ministers discussed Martin Winter with the local Labour Party in 2005, but it was decided that no action would be taken against him.

In the past seven months the council has passed two votes of no confidence in Mayor Winter; the most recent explicitly cited the failure of children's services.

Protests

Local activists have drawn up a petition calling for his resignation. A similar one four years ago attracted 10,000 signatures, but he remains in office.

He's changed the skyline of Doncaster... but what we haven't got is what people pay their rates to achieve, and that's core services that are fit for purpose"
Joe Blackham, Leader of the Labour group, Doncaster council

Martin Winter was expelled from the Labour Party last year; party members are now his most bitter opponents.

Councillors say he has too much power and has neglected core services in Doncaster at the expense of ambitious regeneration projects including a new stadium, college and lakeside business development.

Joe Blackham, the leader of the local Labour group on the council, said: "He's changed the skyline of Doncaster and we've got millions of empty offices, glorified tin sheds, but what we haven't got is what people pay their rates to achieve and that's core services that are fit for purpose."

Most important of those core services is child protection.

Unprotected children

Last year it was revealed that the number of children on the child protection register in Doncaster was double the national average, yet almost a quarter of those had not been allocated a social worker.

Doncaster's Mayor Martin Winter
Mayor Winter was expelled from the Labour Party in 2008

Now the council says they have, but reports from the frontline say that is not strictly true.

Jim Board, UNISON's Doncaster representative told Newsnight: "Senior managers say there are no unallocated cases. Unfortunately, what we're hearing from our members who work in front line social work is that's not their experience. There are still cases that are only technically allocated. They have a social worker's name against them but there is no real work going on with those families."

Doncaster has had four heads of children's services in as many years, but the council refused our request for an interview with the current director.

So did Mayor Martin Winter. He instead released a statement saying: "I have faced a continual campaign of vilification from some local politicians and community activists."

He said he had "commissioned an urgent independent investigation to establish exactly what happened in "Children's Safeguarding" and crucially why key people, including myself, were not informed earlier."

The coming days will see the publication of serious case reviews into the deaths of Amy Howson, Alfie Goddard, Warren Jobling and Cameron McWilliams.

The government is expected to conclude its investigation into Doncaster Council shortly.

In May the people of Doncaster will once more elect a mayor.

Watch Matt Prodger's investigation on Newsnight on Wednesday, 4 March, 2009 at 10.30pm on BBC 2, or after the broadcast on the BBC iPlayer.

SEE ALSO
Children services inquiry ordered
12 Jan 09 |  South Yorkshire
'Chaotic' council team failed boy
11 Dec 08 |  South Yorkshire
Baby killer given life sentence
24 Oct 08 |  South Yorkshire

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