The killing of Brandon Muir by his mother’s partner could not have been predicted by child protection agencies in Dundee, although their ability to investigate concerns was undermined by poor information-sharing and recording.
That was the conclusion of a significant case review published today concerning the 23-month-old boy, who died on 16 March 2008 after suffering a ruptured intestine caused by a heavy blow inflicted by Robert Cunningham, 23.
Numerous contacts with professionals
The case prompted a public outcry when it emerged that Brandon and his family had been seen on numerous occasions by health, social services and family support staff in the three weeks leading up to his death.
Cunningham was also known to social services and police for being reported on nine occasions on suspicion of domestic abuse by his former partner in 2007 and 2008, although no action was taken.
Mother’s hidden drug use and prostitution
Social workers were aware of the allegations when they convened an initial referral discussion on 28 February 2008, but had no idea that Brandon’s mother, Heather Boyd, was using heroin with Cunningham and involved in prostitution.
Concerns raised by grandparents
The meeting was prompted by a phone call from Boyd’s mother to Dundee Council’s social work access team on 25 February, to express concerns about her daughter’s inconsistent parenting skills and potentially volatile relationship with her new boyfriend, Cunningham. The couple had just moved in together at Boyd’s flat in Douglas, Dundee, and were later joined by Brandon and Brandon’s sibling, aged four.
“No red lights or alarms”
The review praised the “timely” response in calling the meeting, which resulted in an urgent case conference being set for 18 March – two days after Brandon’s death.
Representatives of social services, health, police, and Charleston Family Support Centre decided there were no immediate grounds for removing the children on 28 February, and told the review’s author, independent social work consultant Jimmy Hawthorn, that “there were no red lights or alarms” in relation to the case.
Significant gaps in information
However, the review highlighted important omissions in the information presented to the discussion, and described the police information as “inaccurate and incomplete”. The fact that Cunningham’s previous relationship had ended acrimoniously after his partner had twice accused him of assault in February 2008 was among details not raised.
In addition, further information about the domestic abuse referrals could “potentially have raised people’s awareness of [Cunningham’s] capacity to be violent”.
Knowledge of risks was incomplete
“This was information that could and should have been available to the IRD on 28 February,” the report said. “It would have allowed a full and current risk assessment of potential risks to the children.”
Further contact with professionals
Boyd took Brandon to Douglas Family Support Centre the same day, and told a family support worker that he had been “whingey and unhappy” since he had woken up that morning. A post-mortem on Brandon’s body revealed older rib fractures which had begun to heal around the site of the fatal injury, and the review said it was possible that his behaviour could have been an attempt to articulate the pain of those injuries.
Sign of injury not recorded
Two social workers went on to make an unannounced visit to the family’s home on 11 March and noted both children showed signs of “inappropriate clinginess and attention-seeking”. They recalled seeing a graze on Brandon’s face, which Boyd explained had been caused by him falling off the bed, but there was no reference to this in the case notes.
Lack of parenting assessments
The review also noted that although agencies became involved with Boyd and her children and began raising concerns as early as 2006, details of her lifestyle and domestic circumstances were “scant” and the extent of her parenting capabilities “unknown”. Hawthorn described the standard of record keeping “generally to be below an acceptable standard”.
However, the report concluded: “[Cunningham’s] fatal assault on Brandon which led to Brandon’s death on 16 March could not have been foreseen.”
It added that Boyd was “skilful” in managing to hide her involvement in prostitution and illegal drugs not only from agencies but from her own parents and wider family.
Cunningham was convicted of culpable homicide and sentenced to ten years in March this year. Boyd, 23, was accused of failing to seek medical help when her son was taken ill the night before he died, but was cleared of culpable homicide.
Second inquiry published
The significant case review was published alongside an independent inquiry by former Fife Constabulary chief constable Peter Wilson into broader issues arising from the Brandon Muir case, commissioned by council, police and health leaders in Dundee.
He concluded that agencies lacked a shared understanding about child protection, including thresholds for intervention, while managers and staff within agencies lacked a common grasp of how policies should be turned into practice.
But he concluded that there was a “commitment to build on the significant improvements” already made since Brandon’s death to “achieve and demonstrate that improved understanding”.
Safeguarding: Dundee slammed in wake of Brandon Muir case