Doncaster torture case: Social workers ‘must intervene earlier’
Social workers must intervene earlier in chaotic, violent families, child protection experts warned today, as more details emerged of the backgrounds of the young brothers who carried out a prolonged torture attack on two other children in parkland near Doncaster.
The brothers, now aged 12 and 10, pleaded guilty yesterday to a series of charges linked to the horrific attack, in which close friends aged nine and 11 were beaten, stamped on and pierced with sticks. The ordeal also involved sexual abuse and humiliations such as being forced to eat nettles.
The older of the two victims almost died when a section of a sink was smashed on to his head and he was left, unconscious, half-naked and face-down, at the bottom of a steep ravine. He was only found after the nine-year-old was discovered, bleeding and traumatised, wandering nearby.
The attackers, who will be sentenced later this year, had been placed with foster parents in Edlington, a former pit village on the edge of Doncaster, South Yorkshire, only three weeks before. They were well-known to police and had been involved in earlier violent attacks. They cannot be named for legal reasons.
South Yorkshire police are investigating whether more could have been done to prevent the attack given that on the Saturday morning in April when it occurred the brothers should have been at a local police station answering questions about an attack a week earlier on another 11-year-old boy in Edlington.
Doncaster council’s troubled children’s services department, which had its management team replaced by Whitehall earlier this year after a string of child deaths, is also carrying out an investigation. Critics charge that the brothers should have been removed earlier from their anarchic home in another part of Doncaster where they lived with five siblings and a mother who was reportedly heavily dependent on cannabis and alcohol.
They have also asked why the boys were placed into the care of foster parents rather than a more secure environment, given repeated complaints from neighbours about their violent behaviour.
The only way to prevent such cases occurring again was a nationwide policy through which social workers liaised with vulnerable parents when their children were very young, or before they were even born, said a Labour MP who has helped pioneer such a scheme.
The government needed to “break into the inter-generational cycle” of such families, said Graham Allen, whose Nottingham constituency has pioneered family intervention projects.
“If you talk to a police officer, a headteacher, a doctor, any of the professionals who are currently having to pick up the pieces, they will all tell you: if we could have got to this family much earlier… not only would we have a more rounded, socially and emotionally capable child, we would save millions of pounds with those families,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, with whom Allen has worked closely, told BBC Radio 5 that early intervention was vital, and cautioned against calls for tough discipline.
“There is discipline and discipline.” he said. “The sort of discipline these kids have received is arbitrary and often incredibly violent. So it is not that they didn’t have discipline, it is the discipline was completely pointless,. In their case it was simply a case of just savaging them.”
Joanna Nicolas, an expert on social work and child protection, told Today that it was unhelpful to depict children such as the brothers as intrinsically evil‚ as did the detective who led the investigation into the 1993 murder of James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys.
“The reality is that child protection social workers are very much firefighting‚ they are going in almost when the crisis has happened,” Nicolas said.
“What people need to understand is that if a child is born in a household where there is domestic abuse, even before that child is born the make-up of their brain will be completely different from a child where there isn’t abuse.
“As that child grows up it has a lack of what we call victim empathy, a complete emotional numbness. They have no understanding of the damage they are doing to other people. I don’t believe that we should see these children as criminal. They have done a terrible, terrible thing, but they are victims, they are children.”
More details emerged today about the backgrounds of the brothers, who were reportedly placed in foster care in March when their mother could no longer cope.
Soon after the Edlington attack, the mother and her five remaining children moved out of the family’s semi-detached house on a social housing estate elsewhere in Doncaster, reportedly over fear of reprisals. The boys’ natural father, who lived in Edlington and who they are believed to have seen regularly when they lived there, has also reportedly moved.
According to a series of reports today, neighbours around the former family home repeatedly called police and social services to complain about the apparent neglect of the two brothers and their violent and intimidating behaviour.
One family, of Iraqi Kurd descent, said they had suffered repeated racial abuse and their three children had been physically attacked. Rocks, eggs and paint-filled balloons were thrown at their home and windows smashed, they said.
The family said they were told by police to compile a dossier of problems linked to the brothers, and that their 11-year-old daughter did so. This reportedly ran to 17 incidents between Christmas Eve and the end of January.