A catalogue of errors and missed opportunities by Birmingham City Council contributed to the death of Khyra Ishaq, a High Court judge has ruled.
A 43-page Family Court Judgment, which has only now been made fully public, is a harrowing account of the events leading up to the seven-year-old’s death from starvation.
It was issued as part of care proceedings into Khyra’s five brothers and sisters made by the city council and heard at Birmingham County Court in March last year.
During the month-long hearing, expert witnesses along with teachers and the council’s staff were called to give evidence.
In a section entitled ‘slipping through the net’, Mrs Justice King demolishes the claim by city children’s director Tony Howell that nothing more could have been done to save Khyra.
Evidence given during the hearing revealed that social workers and education officials repeatedly failed to take adequate action over Khyra or her siblings, even though teachers from two schools warned social services that the children were malnourished, thin and cold.
So hungry were the youngsters that they were reduced to stealing food and scavenging in bins at school for apple cores, the hearing heard.
The children’s weight plummeted, alarming teaching staff while the attitude of the mother, Angela Gordon, became increasingly hostile and fixated on food. She eventually withdrew firstly Khyra from school, then the other young children.
Khyra’s deputy head teacher was to make the first of several phone calls to social services to outline concerns for the children’s health. She asked social services to investigate, but they refused, suggesting that intervention by social services might “antagonise the situation”.
It was to be the start of systematic failure by council staff to follow through the concerns. Five months later Khyra was dead. She weighed just 2st 9lb. Two of her siblings, referred to as Child Z and Child L in the report, were also on the verge of death and were described as looking like Ethiopian famine victims.
Hospital staff were shocked and unsure how to treat the starving children – it simply wasn’t something they had come across.
In her findings Mrs Justice King said teaching staff had voiced concerns for the children, in particular relating to them not being fed properly. “The schools did all they could to bring their concerns to the attention of the relevant authorities. These concerns were not taken sufficiently seriously and were not adequately investigated.”
Despite the findings – which were known to the council last March – Mr Howell made a statement last week on Khyra’s death pointing the finger of blame at legislation on home education which he claimed made it impossible for his staff to act.
He also suggested that the public should have done more.
His statement read: “Many people in the local community were aware, or had suspicions, that all was not right in the home where Khyra died, yet no-one felt able to alert any of the authorities.”
He continued: “We need the public to help us protect children. We need them to be our eyes and ears. If anyone suspects children are at risk we would urge them to either contact us or the police.”
But the hearing was told that this is exactly what teaching staff did. They contacted social services immediately and they were rebuffed.
Mrs Justice King heard that social services staff, when pressed again by teachers, advised the school to contact police.
Also the special education needs of three of the children – including Khyra – had triggered referrals to education officials, who in turn grew concerned at Angela Gordon’s aggressive attitude and contacted social services.
As Mrs Gordon claimed she would be home schooling her children, she was legally required to provide education plans for them. An education official, named in court as Mr H, and an education social worker visited her home where they were shown a basic “classroom” but did not get to see the children, who it was said were asleep after a late night.
Mrs Gordon did not provide educational plans but despite this and a second abortive visit to the house by the education official, he decided that she had fulfilled the criteria for home schooling.
Mrs Justice King said Mr H had been “vague in his evidence” as to what had occurred, but accepted he had not received an education plan from Ms Gordon.
The judge added: “That, then, would seem to indicate he was not in a position to tell social services, or indeed anyone else, that he was satisfied as to the educational provision despite the fact that the mother had failed to provide any educational plan.”
Mr H did not see the children during his visit, and when he returned on April 16 in an attempt to pick up the education plan there was no reply. Mr H gave up at this stage and did not visit the house again.
Even so, the council agreed to allow the names of Khyra and three of her brothers and sisters to be removed from school rolls – a move that prompted social services to wash its hands of the case, four weeks before Khyra died.
Mrs Justice King noted, if the council had been more concerned with Khyra’s welfare rather than her education she would probably still be alive today.
A social services investigation should not have been dropped when education officials agreed Khyra could be taught at home.
And a senior social worker did not realise she had the right to insist on seeing Khyra weeks before the tragic youngster died of pneumonia and malnutrition.
Mrs Justice King added: “I can only conclude that in all probability had there been an adequate initial assessment and proper adherence by the educational welfare services to its guidance, Khyra would not have died.
“Merely looking at the photographs of the house and the conditions in which the children were living confirms in my mind that had social services even seen the bedroom in which the children lived or the manner in which they were fed, they would undoubtedly have intervened.”
A plea from the deputy head teacher at Khyra’s school, asking social services to investigate urgently, was rejected in December 2007.
Two police officers visited the Leyton Road house where Khyra and her brothers and sisters lived on December 29. Khyra was brought to the door by her mother and “appeared healthy”.
Mrs Justice King noted that the “fleeting glimpse” of Khyra satisfied the officers, who did not see or ask to see any of the other children.
At the end of January 2008, Birmingham social services finally agreed to carry out an Initial Assessment on Khyra and her brothers and sisters.
But a senior children’s social worker, Miss G, made a fatal mistake by believing that the consent of the children’s parents was needed before enquiries could be made among agencies such as schools and the health services.
When Miss G visited Leyton Road on February 18 accompanied by an educational social worker, Angela Gordon would not let them into the house.
Khyra and two of her siblings were briefly brought to the door and shown to Miss G, who told the court “nothing stood out”. Her visit did not comply with rules laid down by the Department of Health, which state that an Initial Assessment should involve “observing and talking with the child in an age-appropriate manner”.
Mrs Justice King noted: “With respect to Miss G that rather begs the question: had she seen the children or any of them as is expected and anticipated in an Initial Assessment she may have had more information, if only from the children’s physical appearance, that would have led her to conclude that a child protection investigation was necessary”.
The Initial Assessment was never completed and “simply shelved without ever speaking to the children’s schools from where the anxieties had stemmed and the referral had been made”.
Added to this there was an unknown male (Gordon’s partner, Junaid Abuhamza) in the house with the six young children in circumstances where he was refusing to identify himself.
“The schools did all they could to bring their concerns to the attention of the relevant authorities. These concerns were not taken sufficiently seriously and were not adequately investigated.”
The judgment concludes with severe criticism of all the public agencies involved for failing to share with each other information about Khyra and her brothers and sisters.