A woman who systematically beat, starved and abused her six-year-old stepdaughter until she died from multiple injuries was yesterday convicted of manslaughter and wilful neglect.
Tracey Wright, 31, was found guilty of causing the death of Lauren Wright at Norwich crown court after a four-week trial which revealed 18 months of physical and psychological abuse.
Lauren’s father, Craig Wright, 38, was also convicted of manslaughter, though there was no evidence that he beat his daughter.
They were remanded in custody and will be sentenced in four weeks.
Lauren was found dead in an upstairs room at the family home in Welney, Norfolk, on May 6 last year. Her digestive system had collapsed fatally after a punch or kick to the stomach from Tracey Wright. Her emaciated frame weighed just two stones and was covered with more than 60 bruises. A doctor who gave evidence said her injuries were similar to those of a car crash victim.
Norfolk social services department last night conceded that its handling of the case had been negligent.
Lauren was seen on three occasions by social workers in the last 12 weeks of her life, as well as by a policeman and two doctors, and her maltreatment was obvious to numerous neighbours who gave evidence. But despite repeated warnings, Lauren was not removed from the family home.
David Wright, director of social services, said: “Had we followed the correct procedures which were already in place, Lauren would be alive today.”
An internal investigation into the case published yesterday concluded that the response to Lauren’s plight was poorly coordinated and lacked urgency.
The NSPCC said the case was one of the most disturbing it had come across, and the local MP Gillian Shephard called for a public inquiry. “It is worse than the Victoria Climbié case in my opinion because it all took place in full view of those people who should have been caring for Lauren Wright,” she said.
Lauren Wright was born in Potters Bar in Hertfordshire in 1993, the product of a short affair between Wright and Jennifer Bennett. Wright lived with his mother in the village of Three Holes, Norfolk, and had minimal contact with his daughter in her first three years, during which Lauren had her first experience of parental neglect.
In 1997 Jennifer Bennett took Lauren on holiday to Turkey and left her there. Scratching the child’s name from her passport, Ms Bennett returned to the UK without her daughter, leaving the British consulate to organise the return of the child.
On her return, Lauren was placed on the child protection register in Hertfordshire, and in May 1997 Wright took custody of his daughter. Nine months later, deeply concerned about the treatment she might receive if returned to her natural mother, Lauren’s grandmother was granted a residency order and became Lauren’s legal guardian.
In January 1999 the Wrights moved to Welney, a Fenland village of 300 people on the Norfolk-Cambridgeshire border. Lauren attended the small local school, William Marshall primary, while her father divided his time between work, the river bank, the pub and his new neighbour, Tracey Scarff, a dominant and persuasive woman with a large extended family living locally. She was the playground assistant at Lauren’s school.
Within six months Wright and Scarff married, and Wright and Lauren moved in with Scarff and her nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter.
A cycle of abuse began that was to end with Lauren’s death. Apparently driven by resentment and antipathy, Tracey Wright openly discriminated against the child, teasing and bullying her while lavishing praise on her own children. Chief Superintendent Martin Wright of Norfolk police described her treatment of the child as “vile and sadistic”.
Craig Wright was never home long enough to notice. “The word I would use for him is abdicated,” said Chief Superintendent Wright.
A chubby child, Lauren gradually became thin and pale, her hair thinning and greasy, and she was dressed in dirty hand-me-downs. She was regularly bruised on the face and legs, injuries that Tracey Wright explained to neighbours by saying that Lauren had walked into a door, or been knocked over by the family’s alsatian dog.
There was evidence, too, of psychological abuse. One witness described seeing Lauren forced to stand in front of a lit gas fire as a punishment for wetting the bed. Tracey Wright’s son described seeing his mother emptying a pepper pot onto a cheese sandwich she had made for Lauren, and putting a worm in her soup. Gradually Lauren became withdrawn, shy and nervy.
Two neighbours became so concerned they anonymously called Norfolk social services, who initially acted promptly. Tracey Wright was interviewed by two social workers and Lauren was seen by a doctor, who did not think the injuries were accidental. An appointment with a paediatrician was made for the following day, March 15 last year.
The paediatrician decided after two consultations that the injuries were consistent with Tracey Wright’s explanations, and Lauren returned home to face yet more abuse.
At this time, amid concerns that the stepmother-daughter relationship was not all it should be, an appointment was made for Lauren and Tracey Wright to see a family support worker on May 8. It turned out to be a fatal misreading of the situation. The senior social worker responsible for the misjudgment has since resigned and is said by one colleague to be “a suicide case”.
In late April, following an allegation that Lauren had been sexually assaulted by her natural mother with whom she still had some contact, two social workers from Hertfordshire visited Lauren and became concerned. (Jennifer Bennett was not charged with any offence.) The Hertfordshire team contacted Norfolk social services but again no action was taken, even after they put their concerns in writing.
On May 2, Lauren failed to return to school for the start of term. Tracey Wright said she had gastroenteritis. On Friday May 5, Norfolk social services agreed that the appointment on the following Monday should go ahead. Meanwhile, Lauren was lying at home, malnourished, bruised and a day away from death.
Tracey Wright’s son, speaking by video to the court, described what could have been the fatal blows. “The day Lauren died, I remember mum punching her in the belly two times. I was going to go to the toilet, and I see mummy punch her in the belly two times.”
More than a year on from her death, Welney is still coming to terms with a tragedy. Only a handful of villagers are willing to discuss the Wrights, and there is a sense of denial in the tiny community where the attentions of the church, the school, social services and the people were not sufficient to stop a child being killed.
“This whole village has got its head in the sand,” said one inhabitant, who in common with many other villagers did not wish to be named. “Nobody wants to talk about what went on here, but they must have been blind in Chestnut Avenue if they did not see what was happening to that child. She was wandering round like a rag doll but they chose to say nothing.”