February 2011

Baby whose mother strapped him in front of fire for three days died after social services missed 17 chances to save him

A baby was found dead in his pushchair in front of a blazing gas fire – his body charred and burned – after social services missed 17 chances to save him.

Alex Sutherland, aged 13 months, had been dead for at least three days, according to a harrowing report published yesterday.

He had faeces on his hands, legs and buggy, had severe nappy rash and had bruising on his head and body.

His mother, Tracey Sutherland, 39, who formerly worked in a pharmacy, was found nearby by police walking in the rain in her pyjamas and smelling of alcohol. 

She later admitted neglect and was jailed for 27 months.

Yesterday a Serious Case Review found Alex died despite numerous calls to social services from relatives, friends, police, nurses and a childminder.

The report states there were 17 separate occasions when fears were raised over his welfare.

Yet he was not placed on the ‘at risk’ register and was allowed to continue living with his mother at their home in Wythenshawe, Manchester, even though she admitted drinking up to six bottles of wine a day. 

The case echoes that of Baby P – Peter Connelly – a 17-month-old boy who died in 2007 after suffering up to 50 injuries over eight months, despite being repeatedly seen by Haringey Children’s services and NHS professionals.

In March 2009 a review by Lord Laming said a higher priority should be given to child protection.

He said there was a lack of communication and joined-up working between agencies and he highlighted problems, with under-trained social workers and a ‘tick box’ mentality. 

The findings were published as Alex’s suffering – and the failures surrounding his case – were heading towards their tragic conclusion. Yesterday’s Serious Case Review spells out a catalogue of occasions when the authorities could have taken action.

The report, by Manchester Safeguarding Children’s Board, condemned health and social workers, saying Alex’s case was ‘poorly managed throughout’ and his neglect was ‘both predictable and preventable’.

Referring to Alex as Child T and his mother as Mrs E, it said: ‘Child T was known to agencies because of Mrs E’s misuse of alcohol, yet 17 expressions of concern (four of which alleged she was drunk) failed to trigger a reconsideration of the initial assessments that the likelihood of future significant harm was low. 

‘No single agency was responsible for failing to protect Child T from the chronic neglect which he suffered at the hands of his mother, but rather he was the victim of the multiple failures of all those agencies … to recognise the risks to which he was exposed and to take appropriate action.’

The report went on: ‘There were a number of contacts made with agencies by Mrs E’s family and friends expressing concern about her drinking behaviour and the impact it had on Child T.’

It said the mother-of-two had had an alcohol problem throughout her adult life after being introduced to drink by her step-father at the age of eight. 

By 2007 she was drinking six bottles of wine a day and drank throughout her pregnancy. Just three weeks after Alex was born in October 2008, police were called to the house to find him lying on the floor in front of a gas fire while Sutherland staggered around drunk.

He was returned to his mother just nine days later after Sutherland insisted she would deal with her alcohol problems. After his death, Sutherland told police: ‘This is horrible, I’m a disgrace, an absolute disgrace. I didn’t mean to harm him at all, absolute disgrace I am, sick in the head. Do I go to prison now?’ 

She was jailed at Manchester Crown Court in April last year.

Laura Roberts, chief executive of NHS Manchester, said: ‘We are very sorry that we…did not fully recognise the extent of his neglect.’ 

Pauline Newman, the city council’s director of Children’s Services, said it was clear ‘there were areas where we could have done better’.

She added: ‘We have carried out an extensive programme of work since this little boy died to ensure that staff fully understand the lessons that need to be taken on board from this tragedy.’

‘We have also further trained staff to be assertive and challenging to parents who abuse alcohol.’