Disabled 16-month-old child drowned in trough in foster carers’ garden when left unsupervised

A disabled 16-month-old toddler who had just learned to stand up drowned in a water trough when he was left unsupervised in the garden of his foster family’s home, an inquest has found.

Thomas Branchflower was found unresponsive in the metal container at the Williton, Somerset home on July 27 2020 and died in hospital five days later.

His foster mother, Louise Ford, said she was “kept awake at night” by regret at not having emptied the open-top tank of water as his mobility improved.

Thomas had a cognitive disability which delayed his development and impaired his vision, which is why he was in professional foster care.

At the time of his death, he was unable to walk, but had recently learned to pull himself up to standing briefly, Somerset coroner Tony Williams told Thursday’s hearing.

On that day, his foster mother went inside the house to check her emails, leaving Thomas in the garden with her 13-year-old daughter.

She did not hear her daughter coming in, and when she went back out into the garden after 5pm, she could not see the toddler.

After searching for him, she found him face-down in the trough.

“She scooped him up and turned him around. He was cold and wet and white,” the coroner said.

Ms Ford, who is a nurse, gave him rescue breaths as she called emergency services.

Thomas was taken to Bristol Children’s Hospital’s intensive care unit (pictured), where his condition deteriorated and he died on August 1.

The cause of death was “hypoxic ischaemic brain injury secondary to drowning”, Mr Williams said.

The foster mother was “desperate for him to live”.

In her evidence statement, read out by the coroner, Ms Ford said: “We knew Thomas was pulling up, standing, but he wasn’t standing for any length of time.

“He was coming up but going down again.

“We said we need to get that trough empty… and that’s the regret that keeps me awake at night.

“We just needed to do it and this would not have happened.”

Thomas had “brought joy” to the foster family, she said.

The child was not adequately supervised and should not have been left alone other than when asleep, the inquiry was told.

The inquiry also heard that the rainwater container in the rear garden should have been recognised as a possible danger.

In his narrative conclusion, the coroner said: “I don’t feel that that would do justice to just refer to this being an accident.

“We might say in general terms it was an accident – nobody intended it to happen…

“Prior to Thomas Branchflower’s placement, the fostering process had not identified the trough as a potential hazard.

“At the time of Thomas’ fall into the water-filled trough, Thomas was not being supervised”.

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