Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Could Khyra Ishaq have been saved?

By Margaret Ryan
BBC News

Khyra Ishaq
Khyra Ishaq died after being starved by her mother and her partner

Seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq weighed just 2st 9lb (16.5kg) when paramedics found her emaciated at her home in Handsworth, Birmingham.

Her death five months after her mother withdrew her from school raised concerns about how closely home educated children are monitored. But were other opportunities missed by the authorities to spot the child was being abused?

When paramedics went to Khyra Ishaq's home in May 2008 they found a severely malnourished girl who had suffered an infection. She had been deliberately starved by the very people who should have cared for her most. The child was taken to hospital where she was pronounced dead.

There are a tiny minority of people who use the home education system as a mask for sometimes horrific abuse of their children
Graham Badman

Her mother Angela Gordon, 35, was cleared of murder but was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. She admitted five counts of child cruelty at Birmingham Crown Court. Her partner Junaid Abuhamza, 30, had already admitted the girl's manslaughter.

In December 2007 Gordon had removed her daughter from school. The school's deputy head was so concerned for the little girl's welfare she went to her house and after she was not allowed in by Gordon she contacted social services.

They did not accept a child being taken out of school to be home educated was a reason for urgent action and advised her to contact the police who visited the house, saw the mother and some of the children in her care and said there was no cause for concern.

Mother 'hostile'

Over the coming months education social workers tried to visit the home on several occasions but were not allowed in. In the February they did see some children, including Khyra, on the doorstep and no concern was raised.

A spokesman for Birmingham City Council, Terry Brownbill, said it had done all it could.

"Had the children been playing truant the mother would have been in trouble", he said.

Jurors were shown footage of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq's home

But Gordon said she was taking some of the children in her care out of school and was "hostile and aggressive", he said.

Social workers and police had no right to force their way into the home, unless they considered there was a serious issue that warranted a court order, he continued.

Meanwhile two staff from education social services had visited the home and had seen the room where children were supposedly being taught and Angela Gordon was asked to provide a teaching plan. But no children were seen. No-one seems to have spoken to Khyra alone.

Birmingham City Council's social services department was under pressure at the time. Last year its children's services were found to be "not fit for purpose".

An inquiry was commissioned the previous year after it emerged eight children known to social services had died in the city in four years.

An audit by a Birmingham City Council scrutiny committee identified failings, including a shortage of experienced staff, inadequate monitoring, excessive paperwork and too little time with children and families.

But Mr Brownbill defended the council's actions saying: "It had no reason to suspect anything was going wrong within the family.

"[Angela Gordon] had a 100 per cent attendance record for the school. The children were not on the at risk register. A number of the children were still going to school."

A serious case review by the city council will be published following the trial.

"Something happened in the house that no-one could get to because there wasn't sufficient legislation to get in," said Mr Brownbill.

The trial heard how behind closed doors Gordon's partner had put a lock on the fridge door and punished Khyra, hitting her with a cane and putting her "in detention" in the garden.

The children were all forced to eat from one bowl or were force fed until they were sick if they had eaten too much.

Home education 'liberal'

Graham Badman, who conducted a review last year into elective home education in England, made recommendations about tighter regulation, which are currently going through parliament.

He said while the number of serious cases involving people who were home educated was "very very small" studies also showed you were twice as likely to be the subject of a child protection plan if you were electively home educated than if you were part of the general population.

A boy writing
Concern has been raised that children are 'hidden' when not taught in school

"The vast majority of people who embark on home education do so for very positive motives," he said in his report.

But he told the BBC: "There are a tiny minority of people who use the home education system as a mask for sometimes horrific abuse of their children."

His review recommended giving local authorities the power to regulate and monitor home education through registration and giving them the right to regularly check on a child's progress.

Mr Badman said it was "very worrying" this mother was able to evade the authorities for so long.

One study puts the number of children who are electively home educated in England at 20-25,000 but he said the figure could be double. He said children could still be "hidden" from the system.

Ann Newstead, spokeswoman for Education Otherwise, a charity that supports home education, said it was "ludicrous" to suggest extra legislation would have made a difference in this case when social workers, school staff and police had been unable to get into the house.

"Why didn't social services have cause for concern?" she said.

She fears this case is being used as justification for tightening regulation of the home education system and said Mr Badman's review had found no evidence of home education being used for abuse.

"We are ending up with a witch hunt against home educators based on ill thought-out comments," she said.

And she took exception to the idea children were hidden from view when home educated.

Early intervention

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said teachers were good at recognising the signs children were suffering from abuse.

"But once you have that information it is still patchy how schools can pass this on.

"We still have very overstretched social services who have a threshold of engagement. It is sometimes too hard for early intervention to take place when schools have identified there are difficulties."

He believes there needs to be "better joined-up services" before a crisis is reached and believes there needs to monitoring once a child is withdrawn from school.

Four months after Gordon pulled her daughter out of school in April 2008 the social work team manager agreed to close the case as home tutoring had been approved, according to the city council. Weeks later the seven-year-old was dead.

While this case was a "one off", Mr Badman said there was still a need for better regulation of home education.

"What we cannot do is ascribe rights to parents that deny the rights to the child," he said.

Print Sponsor

Khyra's mother guilty of killing
25 Feb 10 |  England
Girl 'starved quite deliberately'
19 Jan 10 |  West Midlands

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific