Lurking in the shadows

Maria Colwell, seven. Starved and battered to death by her stepfather, William Kepple, while her mother, Pauline, was in the same house in Brighton. Maria suffered brain damage and her death led to the first child death inquiry. Kepple was sentenced to eight years for manslaughter, but had it reduced to four years on appeal.

Wayne Brewer, four. Beaten by stepfather Nigel Briffett.

Darryn Brown, four. Killed by his stepfather Charles Courtney.

Jason Caesar, 20 months. Mother and stepfather jailed.

Jasmine Beckford, four. Starved and battered to death by her stepfather, Maurice Beckford. He was jailed for 10 years for her manslaughter. Her mother, Beverley Lorrington, was jailed for 18 months for neglect.

Heidi Koseda, three. Starved to death by her stepfather, Nicholas Price, who was jailed for life for her murder. Her mother, Rosemary Koseda, was found guilty of manslaughter.

Kimberley Carlile, four. Starved and beaten to death. Her stepfather, Nigel Hall, received a life sentence for her murder and her mother was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for assault and cruelty.

Doreen Mason, 16 months. Her mother Christine Mason and boyfriend Roy Aston were convicted of manslaughter and cruelty and each jailed for 12 years after they bruised, burnt and broke the baby’s leg then failed to have her injuries treated
Leanne White, three. Beaten to death by her stepfather Colin Sleate. He was jailed for life for murder. Her mother, Tina, received 10 years for manslaughter.

Lauren Creed, five. Battered to death by stepfather Graham Sate, who received a life sentence for murder. Mother Sharon Creed was sentenced to five years after admitting two charges of child cruelty.

Sophie Casey, 13 months. Verdict of death by misadventure returned, which was contributed to by neglect at the hands of her mother and her boyfriend.

Kennedy McFarlane, three. Her mother’s boyfriend Thomas Duncan was sentenced to life for her murder after a blow sent her crashing into the leg of a bed.

Carla-Nicole Bone, 13 months. Died following a frenzied attack by her mother’s boyfriend Alexander McClure. He was jailed for life and her mother Andrea was jailed for three years for failing to protect her daughter.

Jade Hart, 13 months. Her mother’s boyfriend Ross Hammond received a life sentence for murder and child cruelty, including physical and sexual assault. Mother Sarah Hart admitted child cruelty by neglect and was sentenced to 12 months in a young offenders institution.

Danielle Reid, five. Mother’s boyfriend Lee Gaytor jailed for life for murder after he admitted repeatedly hitting her on the head and body. Her mother Tracy was jailed for eight years after admitting helping to dispose of her daughter’s body by weighing it down in a suitcase and throwing it in a canal.

Perrin Barlow, nine months. His mother Stephanie Horrocks was jailed for two years and her partner Mark McAndrew received 15 months after both admitted to charges of child cruelty.

Jasmine Galyer, three. Violently shaken by stepfather Stewart Pirie, who was jailed for eight years for manslaughter and for cruelty to a child after pleading guilty to both. Her mother, Melissa Galyer, was sentenced to two-and-a half-years after pleading guilty to cruelty to a child.

Kelvin Cochrane, two. Beaten to death by his stepfather Lee Camplin who was sentenced to seven years for manslaughter and three years, to run consecutively, for child cruelty. His mother Stacey Wood received a three year community rehabilitation order for neglect.

John Gray, 21 months. Died as a result of a ruptured liver thought to have been caused by a blow to the abdomen. His mother Lorna Gray and her boyfriend James McEwan were jailed for five years after pleading guilty to child cruelty charges.

Michaela Moffat, two. Shaken to death by her mother’s boyfriend Gavin Fletcher, she suffered bleeding inside her skull. He was found guilty of manslaughter and was jailed for seven years.

Courtney Crockett, four. Her mother’s boyfriend Gareth Rees received 10 years for manslaughter and child cruelty. Her mother Sandra Bennell received three years for child cruelty.

Ukleigha Batten-Froggatt, six. Mark Nicholas received a minimum of 30 years for stabbing his girlfriend Nicole Batten to death and then suffocating her daughter.

Aaron Gilbert, 13 months. Died from brain damage. His mother, Rebecca Lewis, received six years for familial homicide – one of the first people to be convicted of this in the UK. Her boyfriend, Andrew Lloyd, was jailed for 24 years for murder.

Deraye Lewis, three. Beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend Nicholas Halling who was sentenced to a minimum of 20 years imprisonment.

Leticia Wright, four. Suffered trauma to her head and body equivalent to a major road traffic accident. Mother Sharon Wright and boyfriend Peter McKenzie-Seaton were given life sentences.

Baby P, 17 months. Battered with back and ribs broken. His mother, her boyfriend and her lodger, found guilty of causing or allowing the boy’s death. Due to be sentenced in May.

Tiffany Hirst, three. Her mother Sabrina Hirst and stepfather Robert Hirst were jailed for 12 years and five years for manslaughter and child cruelty respectively after Tiffany starved to death.

Sanam Navsarka, two. 107 wounds, including fractures to all limbs. Mother Zahbeena Navsarka received nine years for manslaughter and partner Subhan Anwar received life for murder.

Brandon Muir, 23 months. Suffered more than 40 injuries from his mother’s boyfriend Robert Cunningham. He was convicted of culpable homicide. His mother was cleared of the same charges

Maria Colwell. Jasmine Beckford. Heidi Koseda. Kimberley Carlile. Leanne White. Lauren Creed. Baby P. These names don’t resonate only with social workers; as some of the UK’s most notorious child deaths they conjure up grim details that are etched on the nation’s collective memory.

And they have something else in common: they all died at their stepfather’s hands. In many cases their mothers received prison sentences for offences ranging from neglect to assault or manslaughter.

Sadly, these are just a few names on the deathly roll call that stretches back to 1973 of young children killed by their stepfather or their mother’s boyfriend.

No matter how good our protective or preventive measures, there will always be parents who will harm or even kill their children. Whether the killer is their biological father or their stepfather may not seem that relevant when it comes to informing preventive policies, but research suggests otherwise.

In 1988, US data showed that children aged up to two are at about 100 times greater risk of being killed by their stepfather than their biological father. Psychologists call this the Cinderella effect. The research went on to look at British data, concluding that it indicated “considerable excess risk at the hands of stepfathers”.

With the rates of remarriage, divorce and cohabitation steadily increasing, giving rise to more stepfamilies, this is a disturbing thought. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2006 84% of stepfamilies consisted of a stepfather and biological mother living with children from her previous relationship.

Research suggests that whereas genetic fathers often kill their children “more in sorrow than in anger”, out of perceived necessity and/or as part of a suicide, homicides committed by stepfathers tend to be more rage driven, impulsive acts motivated by hostility towards the child and characterised by violently beating or shaking them.

Despite this evidence, some researchers believe that minimal attention has been given to stepfathers – or mothers’ boyfriends – as the perpetrators of these crimes and the reasons behind them.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center in the US, says: “Sociobiologists point out that these are men who have no genetic stake in this child and see them as competition for attention and time, and their own offspring. Among other primates it’s not unknown for a new alpha male to kill the children of the dominant male when he comes into a group.”

But Finkelhor believes the reasons are simpler than that. “That has some reality to it, but I think it operates through more familiar psychological mechanisms; that these aren’t men who feel a natural affinity or protectiveness about the children of the women they are involved with. These are not men who are nurturing.”

Anger management

This squares with the fact that a child’s inconsolable crying is one of the main triggers for these homicides. “Frequently the dynamics of these cases are common,” says Finkelhor. “The woman leaves the child with the boyfriend or stepfather and when the child starts crying, he doesn’t have the nurturing skills to handle this in a calm way and then hits, throws, or smothers them because he wants them to shut up.

“They are not all of one sort, but a high proportion [in these cases] are violent, abuse their partners, and tend to have an anger management problem.”

Gathering any deeper psychological profile of these men is hampered by the fact that we know so little about them, and what we do know is usually learned after a child has been killed – which isn’t helped by serious case reviews that mostly focus on the pathology of the mother.

This reflects the continuing failure of agencies to engage properly with men, says David Derbyshire, Action for Children’s head of performance improvement and consultancy, and author of several serious case reviews.

“We probably don’t know a lot because too many times we come across cases where there is no involvement with men. Then there is an incident where the child is injured or dies, the serious case review takes place and we see the intervention is often only all with the woman and the man is not known about, or if he is, there’s no contact.

“If you don’t engage with the man but he is there everyday then the work we are doing is going to have a limited impact.”

Before we can even reach a position where men are properly involved, social workers need to recognise their importance to the whole familial picture and approach them with an open mind, which appears to happen too infrequently.

Research for a book he was writing on gender and child protection led says Jonathan Scourfield, senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s school of social sciences, to interview social workers about how they worked, or didn’t work, with men. He found primarily pejorative views.

“Men were seen as a threat, as no use, as irrelevant and absent – and there was a whole host of reasons given for not engaging with them.”

The dominant theme was of men as a threat, not surprisingly given the kinds of problems that caused referrals to be made to the team. But what worried Scourfield was the number of men that social workers didn’t pick up on. “Often there’s a boyfriend, the mother doesn’t mention it, but he’s hovering in the background, half noticed.”

Even if he is seen or known about, it’s all too common for no real attempt to be made to engage him. “The social work culture is an important part of that, but there’s a huge issue with the actual behaviour of these men. We are talking about men who are very difficult to work with and that needs to be acknowledged,” Scourfield adds.

This leads to questions of how a social worker can confidently decide whether to engage with the individual, or whether they are so dangerous they should be removed from the child’s life. It’s a dilemma that troubles Brid Featherstone, professor of social work and social policy at Bradford University: “We haven’t equipped social workers to work with these men. We haven’t got skills in assessing men generally, so we don’t even get as far as deciding that this man shouldn’t be in the family home.

“There is a problematic absence of an evidence base in the UK about working with men – either those who are a resource for children or a risk. Half the time we don’t know who is in a family. We don’t even record birthfathers if they are not there so how are we going to find others floating around? We tend to rely on the mother but it can be hard to establish living arrangements, as we can see in the Baby P case.”

The need for evidence

Jack Kennedy understands these difficulties. As a consultant in clinical and forensic psychology he compiles psychological reports for courts and parole boards and has worked on some of the most well-known child death cases. “Social workers have a very difficult job because they need evidence to act,” he says. “But it’s very difficult to anticipate or intervene unless there are overt indicators of risk or harm. Society almost expects [social workers] to be a ministry of pre-crime and intervene before these events happen, but to go in and remove a child on a suspicion won’t hold up in court.”

Other than obvious danger signs such as known domestic violence or injuries on a child, Kennedy suggests that where social services are involved with a family they need to be aware of mothers developing new relationships and people visiting the home. “Not least because it can be destabilising for the child having different people coming into the home. And also because they can assist a mother in actively risk managing all the time. But there is a thin line between policing and social care.”

However, any information social workers pull together often comes from the mother and therefore relies on her being honest. This is unlikely to happen if she is witness to her partner abusing her child but feels powerless to do anything about it.

While most of us would find this thought process hard to fathom, the issues behind this “collusion” can be complicated. The personality of these women can form part of the equation. Research into these deaths shows that many women lived in fear of their partners and that violence and abuse against a partner and child often coexisted.

These women can be depressed, overwhelmed or so distracted by their own difficulties that they don’t feel capable of doing anything. Women who are desperate to keep a partner will placate them, or those who are so intimidated by a partner won’t stand up to them.

“These are usually highly vulnerable women who have a confused understanding of relationships,” says Kennedy. “Their backgrounds are characterised by abuse and they are highly dependent on being in a relationship even if it’s dysfunctional because that provides them with the security they are looking for. Many women prize the man they have highly because they believe themselves to be loved in some way. Love and affection become more important to them than the needs of the child.

“They are not resilient enough to say ‘that is wrong, this is over,’ because they think they will not get anyone else. This is not about excusing their behaviour, it’s about helping us understand more about what sort of situation an individual may be in.”

Featherstone goes further, saying there are women who are terrified, and other more complex women who don’t acknowledge their ambivalence to their child. “We are hamstrung by the assumption that all mothers love their children or, if they don’t, they can be helped to. But we have to acknowledge maternal ambivalence. Hate can become the more dominant feeling. I have worked with a small number of women who were sadistic themselves. While you are not going to get lots of these women, sometimes you have to think the unthinkable.”

In 2007-8 there were 45 homicides of children aged up to four, according to the Home Office. But these figures don’t include death by neglect or cases which, although were not classified as murder, were not accidents either. Some analysts in the US believe that, there, the actual figure for child homicides may be double the official one because they can resemble deaths resulting from accidents or other causes; for example, a child who has been thrown or intentionally dropped will have similar injuries to those of one who died after an accidental fall.

The so-called Cinderella effect has no fairytale solution. Evidence of the prevalence of deaths caused by stepfathers is there, though the connection is not always made. But we owe it to the memories of all those children from Maria Colwell to Baby P to make sure we know who is present in a child’s life and whether they are a resource or a risk, so we can prevent as many children as possible from ending up on the same list.


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