As a report concludes social services could not have anticipated the abduction of Shannon Matthews by her mother, Channel 4 News’s Nick Martin recalls his visits to the “chaotic” Matthews home.
A serious case review into the case of Shannon Matthews, the 11-year-old schoolgirl who disappeared from her home in Dewsbury Moor, West Yorkshire, in February 2008, has found that social services could not have anticipated her abduction.
Shannon Matthews’s mother, Karen, was subsequently jailed for eight years after being convicted of kidnapping her daughter in what a judge described as a “truly despicable” plot.
The review states: “The Serious Case Review concluded that the historical and current knowledge available to professionals involved with this family could not have led them to anticipate the third child’s abduction from her home or her mother’s involvement in this.
“The only way to have avoided her abduction was through her prior removal from home under a Care Order and there is no evidence to suggest that this was warranted on the basis of professional knowledge about this case.”
The inquiry by Kirklees Safeguarding Children Board found there was “little leeway” for social services and other agencies to intervene before Shannon, then aged nine, was abducted from her home.
Report author Dr Carole Smith told the press conference the accompany the review’s publication that any decision on the issuing of a care order was “a very complicated question”.
She added that there was evidence that Karen Matthews was attached to her children and that her children were attached to her.”
The difficulty was,” she said, “that there were numberous problems associated with this family, as you know, and that the mother found it difficult to translate her affection for her children into good, practical, effective parenting.”
Nine-year-old Shannon vanished from her home in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, on 15 February 2008, sparking an enormous search by police and local residents.
At the time her mother, Karen Matthews, now 34, appeared on television and in newspapers appealing for her “beautiful, princess daughter”.
On 14 March, some 24 days after Shannon went missing, police raided the home of Michael Donovan, the uncle of Shannon’s stepfather, and found Shannon in an upstairs bedroom hidden in the base of a divan bed.
During police interviews Donovan claimed that Karen Matthews was behind her own daughter’s disappearance and that they had both hatched a plan to hide Shannon in order to make money from selling their story to a national newspaper for £50,000.
Karen Matthews: a calm character - but infantile
I interviewed Karen Matthews on numerous occasions. She was a calm character who never gave too much away. But she was infantile in many ways, blogs Channel 4 News Correspondent Nick Martin.
I was in her kitchen when a national newspaper delivered some toys to the door – she looked more excited than her six remaining children and acted like a child at Christmas.
The home was chaotic, untidy, dirty. The kitchen was full of rubbish and half-eaten food. The back garden resembled a fly tip, with mattresses, toys and shredded bin bags surrounding a barking dog, Shannon's dog, tethered to a laundry pole.
Of course, we know that the social services had been many times and had expressed concern over how the Matthews family existed. Could they, should they have taken more action?
Perhaps they should have taken all of the children away from Karen Matthews and placed them into care? We know they didn't do that and had made a judgement back in 2005 that the family situation was "settling down".
Can the social workers be forgiven for not predicting what was to happen several years later – forgiven for not foreseeing that Shannon's own mother would hatch a plan to have her daughter kidnapped? The serious case review may go some way to answer those questions.
Two days later, Karen Matthews broke down in tears and confessed to a family liaison officer that she had known all along where her daughter was.
Donovan, formerly known as Paul Drake, was charged with the kidnapping and false imprisonment of Shannon.
Karen Matthews was charged with child neglect and perverting the course of justice.
During the trial it was revealed through toxicology reports that Shannon’s hair indicated she had been given the sedative temazepan for up to 20 months prior to her disappearance.
On 4 December 2008 both were found guilty at Leeds crown court and each sentenced to eight years in prison.
After the trial it emerged that Shannon was well known to Kirklees social services and that she had been put on the at-risk register by social workers.
But records showed that she was removed from the register in 2005 because social workers decided that she was no longer at risk and that the dysfunctional Matthews family was “settling down”.
BASW: 'Don't scapegoat social workers'
A response to Channel 4 News from the BASW to today's serious case review.
"The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has welcomed the publication of the summary of the Kirklees safeguarding children's board serious case review (SCR) today and hopes that it will enable everyone to have a greater understanding of how Social Work and child protection works.
"Nushra Mansuri, Joint England Manager for BASW said: 'It is really important that the public understand the complexity of the situations that Social Workers and other professionals deal with. As this review proves, the abduction of Shannon Matthews could not have been foreseen by Social Workers even though the profession was blamed in the press at the time of the incident.
"'Social Workers have nothing to fear from the public knowing how difficult our job is; the profession is often misrepresented in the media and used as a scapegoat before any of the facts are known. Primarily SCRs are an important learning tool that enable professionals to examine a case to determine what could be done more effectively but they also support wider understanding of complex situations.'"
The report is long awaited and some believe it has been deliberately delayed.
The Conservative party suspects that the report may have been damning to the Labour and Liberal Democrat-run council, and that the then-Labour government had shelved it until after polling day.
Government guidelines state that serious case reviews should be completed within four months, unless there is a pressing reason, such as a criminal trial.
In this case the inquiry did not start until after the court case had finished.
Previously secret reports into abuse cases, such as those on Baby P and the Edlington boys, will also be published to help restore public confidence in the system.
It is important to stress that this report is not about the abduction of Shannon Matthews, or the subsequent police investigation, trial and imprisonment of the perpetrators.
In order to be thorough and comprehensive, the Serious Case Review looks at the way five children were supported – that is Shannon and four of her brothers and sisters.
As you may know, it is common practice to examine the support provided to a family, rather than an individual, and certainly in this instance it would have been completely wrong to look at one child in isolation and ignore four others with extremely close links to the case.
The review looks at the agencies’ involvement with the family between 1995 and 2008 and whether these are areas that can be improved. It identifies clearly what those areas are and how future services can be improved and developed.
The whole nation was gripped by the story of Shannon’s disappearance and the whole nation was shocked when the truth behind her disappearance became velar.
This was an extraordinary and unique case and, of course, two people are now in prison for the part they played. Both of those people are individuals whom Shannon should have been able to trust.
We are sorry that any child should go through this traumatic experience and it makes it even harder to comprehend that Shannon’s mother was the one who let her down the most.
This was the person with the greatest responsibility to care and protect, and this person misled the world.
The report we are publishing today covers a long period of time – 13 years in total – in which the family saw several workers from several key agencies. While in that timeframe the level of parenting was inconsistent, the report recognises that this included periods when parenting was safe and adequate.
The report also recognises that the trigger for the Serious Case Review – the abduction of the mother’s third child – Shannon – was, to quote directly, an “unusual, unexpected and challenging event.”
This is made crystal clear and the Board is in full agreement – this was an unprecedented case and it was not possible to foresee that Shannon would fall prey to abduction by people closest to her. We are very firm in that belief, though we accept there are areas of criticism in the report and we agree with them.
As a safeguarding body, the Board acknowledges the significant omission in relation to the eldest child, who could, or possibly should, have been offered a voluntary period in care when behavioural issues became a problem.
We must equally stress that the threshold for taking any of the children into care – for removing them from their mother – was not reached. The Serious Case Review confirms this fact.
Any Serious Case Review will offer valuable and important learning points. This is their primary purpose and all agencies accept the findings and have acted on the recommendations.
There are 12 main recommendations and we a today taking the rare step of also publishing recommendations from Individual Management Reviews – information which could have remained private.
The number of these recommendations is typical of any Serious Case Review, especially one which involves 22 agencies. The Board has chosen to publish this information because we understand the level of public interest in the Matthews family and we are offering the maximum possible details of this exceptional case.
In the last few days, the Board has also received a letter from the Department for Education, confirming that the Secretary of State wishes to publish the Serious Case Review in full.
It has been normal practice throughout the country for full reports to remain confidential, and in Kirklees we have always worked hard to make sure executive summaries reflects them faithfully.
But in our spirit of openness and accountability, we will be doing our utmost to publish in full.
There are many legal issues to consider and we must also balance the needs of the children, whose welfare always comes first.
Today we are providing everything that we are able to publish – the executive summary, all recommendations and action plans to show how different agencies have responded. But we have already begun to look at the next steps and our intention is to publish the full report when it is possible to do so.
The safety of children in Kirklees remains the highest priority of the Safeguarding Children Board and this comprehensive review was conducted in a spirit of complete openness and co-operation among all agencies involved.
We continue to learn and use reports such as this to improve our services and we have an unwavering commitment to this vital field of work.