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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Couple jailed after foster boy's death
John Smith
John Smith died on Christmas Eve 1999
A foster couple have been jailed for eight years for inflicting cruelty on a four-year-old boy they were hoping to adopt.

John Smith died on Christmas Eve 1999 while being cared for by Simon and Michelle McWilliam.

A post mortem revealed 54 external injuries on the toddler.

The couple were found guilty at Lewes Crown Court, East Sussex on Monday.

John Smith
The toddler had 54 external injuries

They had denied the charges, claiming the boy was a self-harmer who threw himself down stairs and headbutted the radiator.

Campden Pratt, prosecuting, described the defendant's claims as "wholly unreal".

He said there was no history of self-harm and said John was an "affectionate" little boy.

Judge Anthony Scott Gall said: "There is clear evidence of your cruelty to this child. It is hard to imagine a worse case.

'Heartless pair'

"You lied and lied to teachers and social workers - you pulled the wool over their eyes.

"You are a cruel and heartless pair."

John went to live with the McWilliams at their home on Gardner Road, Fishersgate, Southwick, six months before he died.

They were hoping to adopt the boy and had been approved as prospective adopters, but had not yet gone through the process.

Over the six months he was with the McWilliams they were visited by social workers and health visitors who noticed the bruising on John's body.

He also had bruising and carpet burns on his face, but they accepted the couple's story, as did his teachers, that he was a self-harmer.

On 23 December Michelle McWilliam called the emergency services and John was taken to hospital in a coma.

He died the next day from a massive blow to the head.

Police originally tried to bring manslaughter charges against the couple, but due to legal technicalities charges of cruelty were the most serious ones they were able to bring.

'Horrendous' mistakes

An independent investigation into the case has criticised the adoption assessment process and some of the social workers and other professionals involved in the case.

It claims more vigorous checks would have revealed the couple were not suitable to be adoptive parents.

Allan Bowman, chairman of the Brighton and Hove Area Child Protection Committee, said: "They succeeded in drawing experienced health and social care professionals into their view of events, which meant that vital questions were not asked and further medical advice was not sought.

"Social workers and health professionals, like everybody else, make mistakes.

"In this case the consequences were horrendous but we should not forget that the professionals get it right most of the time."

The findings of the independent review are now to be published.

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The BBC's Sue Littlemore
"This court case will have wide repercussions"
MacWilliam case report author Alyson Leslie
"A lot of information provided is not independently checked"
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