Poppy died 3 years ago, aged just 4, at the hands of her mother and partner who were long standing addicts. She had head injuries, bruising and had ingested drugs including heroin, methadone and ketamine in the 6 months before her death. According to recent reports they received long prison sentences for child cruelty and drug offences, with the family court also later finding (at a lower standard of proof) that one or the other shook her or inflicted a blow to her head.
North East Lincolnshire Social Services were involved with Poppy, including before her birth. They last assessed and closed her case around 6 months before she died. A Serious Case Review (SCR) was published by North East Lincolnshire Local Safeguarding Children’s Board.
Two detailed media reports on Poppy’s death took strikingly different positions. The Daily Mail on the 19th January and the Hull local Daily Mail on the 21st.
The Daily Mail report
The Daily Mail bayed for sackings with: “Betrayed before she was even born: Social workers knew Poppy, who died aged 4, was at risk before her addict mother gave birth. So why ARE they still in jobs?“
Many argue that this kind of reporting does nothing to help and actually hinders the capacity of councils and social workers to protect children; that it interferes with their ability to pitch difficult interventions between the two legal imperatives of protecting children from harm and not separating families unnecessarily.
The report is also arguably selective so as to mislead. It fails to explain that, though the SCR did find (and NE Lincs accepted) significant social work failures at earlier stages, that set the tone for the way Poppy’s situation was handled outside of a child protection framework, it also made clear that at the time of her death social workers held no legal responsibility for her, with no open case or outstanding referral. Nor did social workers, other agencies or even Poppy’s family know her mother had struck up a relationship with a long-term addict with a conviction for GBH and a history of use of mental health services. Nor that she had resumed drug use, moved Poppy in with him and that Poppy was being regularly sedated with dangerous drugs.
The Hull Daily Mail piece
The Hull Daily Mail’s decision to headline with the open minded “Could Poppy Widdison’s death have been prevented by social services?“ seemed promising by comparison; and its decision to do it by: “Speaking to a social worker to ask what rules were followed and could more have been done to save Poppy“, positively ground-breaking.
A really useful social work account in the form of Question and Answer then follows in accessible language, explaining some of the law and procedure social workers must follow that the public don’t usually have access to.
Yet the more we read into the Serious Case Review the more the social worker’s piece began to seem partial and selective, to the point that it too could mislead a reader. The view that Poppy’s death couldn’t have been prevented by social workers as the situation stood by the time of her death is not an unreasonable one. But the idea that more could have been done at earlier stages that actually might have changed the outcome is not engaged with at all. Serious social work failures at earlier points that the SCR found were critical factors in her subsequent journey through services (ie. might have made a difference) are airbrushed out. That sense is exacerbated by a complete absence of independent critique by the journalist or any alternate source material, even from the SCR. (We don’t know how the social worker was chosen or who they were).
Inaccuracies and gaps
We follow the Daily Mail’s bullet point reasons for asserting that the social workers who “betrayed” Poppy should no longer be in their jobs since they knew Poppy was at risk even before she was born [and, we presume, should have removed her then, in the Daily Mail’s view].
“Officials were so worried, they met three weeks before Poppy’s birth in 2009 to discuss her care, but agreed she could be looked after by her mother and father” (The Daily Mail)
The Hull Daily Mail tackle this under the heading of “Why was Poppy allowed to live with Pyke after being born?”
The social worker provides useful information about pre birth assessments and explains the known risk factors in Poppy’s case: “late registration with maternity services, failed antenatal appointments, her historical lack of engagement with services, her drug taking, her failure to demonstrate capacity to change her parenting after her first child was removed and previous domestic abuse incidents”.
She then mention an unspecified multi disciplinary meeting 3 weeks before Poppy’s birth at which it was decided Poppy could go home to her parents but would go to her grandparents if the plan failed.
What actually happened – the SCR
Both reports are inaccurate since the SCR tells us Poppy wasn’t actually allowed home after birth at all. A second hospital discharge meeting was held which changed the plan after (on top of Poppy’s withdrawal symptoms), her mother refused advice on co-sleeping and was thought to be falsifying drug tests while refusing others. Poppy was discharged to her paternal grandmother’s from hospital but that was wrongly treated as an informal arrangement. No records were kept of the decision to place her there, so as to later make a reasoned decision that it could safely end.
Nor does the social work explanation mention the fact that when Poppy’s mother was 7 months pregnant her half siblings child protection plan transferred out of area with the conference making no recommendations at all for unborn child Poppy.
Or that when an assessment of Poppy’s situation was finally triggered by a referral from the health visitor and midwife, no decision to call a child protection conference for Poppy was made when, in light of the identified risk factors, it should have been.
This might have been because social workers were actually so worried that they called a pre-proceedings meeting to decide whether to apply for a care order as soon as Poppy was born. A decision was made not to do so based on a specific written agreement that required a parenting assessment, parenting work, engagement with drug treatment in the community and regular drug tests but this wasn’t followed through.
The social worker explains in her last paragraph why a ‘public law outline’ meeting like this never became relevant in the last stages of Poppy’s life, but omits to mention that there was one early on, with a written agreement that wasn’t followed through, nor even records kept of the meetings. By the time Poppy returned home from her grandparents 2 months later they had already disengaged from the drug and other agencies they had promised to work with but no one seems to have noticed, since the social worker was off sick. No parenting assessment was ever completed or core (single) assessment updated.
“Poppy was born a drug addict due to her mother’s heroin habit, and doctors said she suffered withdrawal symptoms after birth”; (The Daily Mail)
The social work explanation in the Hull Daily Mail
The SCR and the social worker in the Hull Mail agree Poppy suffered withdrawal symptoms. The social worker goes on to tackle the matter of why Poppy was left with drug users in paragraphs headed “Why was Poppy allowed to live with Pyke despite her ongoing drug addiction?”
It helpfully explains that the law places no automatic bar on parenting due to drug addiction. What matters is the impact of it and the risk in each case against a legal threshold of significant harm. And that the law also expects a parent to be given a reasonable chance to show they can change in time. So a progressing parent, in touch with services, who is open and honest and stable on a methadone script, can be assessed as posing low or no risk. The implication is that lack of evidence and strict legal thresholds may have prevented robust action by N E Lincolnshire social services.
What the SCR tells us is that that adequate social work assessment and multi agency sharing of information simply didn’t take place, so that such evidence as there may have been wasn’t collated and analysed, let alone then used as a base line for deciding when Poppy might safely return home and when she might be at risk again. And that there was a naive optimism in the professional network alongside Poppy’s mother’s actions to conceal her addiction and life style, including by falsifying test results and ensuring she and Poppy presented well when they were seen.
There’s legal confusion (or something got lost in the editing) in the references to parents hav[ing] to meet a threshold. “This is a strict criteria of significant harm, where parents have to demonstrate and evidence a risk of harm to the child”. It is the council who must discharge a burden of proof by producing evidence to show significant harm or a risk of significant harm.
“Social services were responsible for Poppy from birth, and three times closed investigations believing she was safe in her mother’s care” (The Daily Mail)
The Daily Mail are wrong to claim social workers were responsible for her from before her birth as the social worker in the Hull Daily Mail explains, though they did have responsibilities to her on and off throughout her life.
The Hull Daily Mail
The social worker in the Hull article usefully explains how cases are closed and the process by which social workers then have no further responsibility unless or until the case is re-opened on receipt of new information. Poppy’s case was closed some 4 months before she died and no further referral was received.
The social worker also rightly points out that none of the other agencies involved with Poppy, like her nursery or the drug treatment organisation, objected to her case closure.
What the social worker doesn’t say is that at the time social services decided to shut the case for the last time, the drug treatment agency was saying that Poppy’s mother had disengaged from drug treatment.
A brief chronology of the case closures from the SCR shows:
- When Poppy was 16 months the child in need case (open since before her birth) was closed
- When she was nearly 2 there was a further referral after her father threatened her mother with a chainsaw in front of her. An assessment took place but the case was then quickly closed. Poppy’s mother was assumed not to be using drugs from her visual presentation and assurances; and her claim to have separated from the father was accepted
- When Poppy was 3 and a half (about 7 months before she died) a family member referred concerns she was being neglected. Social workers decided against even doing an assessment, so didn’t see her, visit her home or speak to her parents. (By this time her mother was actually in a relationship with a chaotic drug user and Poppy was being sedated with street drugs, though this critical information indicating serious imminent danger, wasn’t known to any agency)
- A month after this, around 6 months before her death, the drug agency referred because Poppy’s mother had disengaged and a case was opened by social workers but shut 8 weeks later since she tested positive only for methadone (later thought to be a test result falsified by the mother). The drug treatment provider continued to say she had disengaged.
“Social workers were called in just six months before her death, but found out only after her death that Poppy was living in a drug dealer’s den” (The Daily Mail)
The Hull Daily Mail
“Why didn’t social services see Poppy was exposed to drugs?” The social worker talking to the Hull Daily Mail seems to imply this may have been because social workers have no right of access to people’s homes without a court order unless parents consent and even if they had visited it wouldn’t have shown up since she would probably have just seemed asleep.
What the social worker doesn’t say that the SCR does, is that when a relative referred concern that she was being neglected and maltreated, social workers didn’t attempt to make contact with her parents, see Poppy or her home conditions – so it’s not known if this would have shown up or not. By this time that she was already being given drugs including ketamine, heroin and morphine, though the referral wasn’t on that basis.
Oddly, we found no reference in the SCR to whether Poppy’s home environment was visited as it should have been during the 8 weeks her case was open from the final referral 6 months before she died, or what was found. It simply refers to “8 weeks of child in need activity” without specifying any safeguarding or assessment measures, which seems a real gap.
Relatives criticised social services, and the local MP hit out at agencies for allowing Poppy to ‘slip through the cracks’ (Daily Mail)
We found no reference to the family or MP in the SCR. The Daily Mail carry a video of the extended paternal family who explicitly say they don’t hold social services accountable for Poppy’s death and that in their view neither they nor agencies could have forseen it, albeit that they think social services made mistakes, including not sharing sufficient information with them.
All in all
So there we have it. A Daily Mail report agitating for social workers to have been sacked for errors that were no longer directly impacting, at a time when her case was closed and they didn’t know she was being fed drugs or had been moved in with her mothers new drug abusing partner and taken out of nursery.
And a local paper quoting a social worker who answers the question of whether more could have been done for Poppy, without reference to SCR findings of failings that set the tone for how it was handled in never initiating child protection procedures; failing to assess and measures change; and not looking into the concerns her family raised 6 months before she died at all.
Neither of the articles link to the serious case review that would allow a reader to access the most balanced, nuanced and accurate version available of Poppy’s tragic death and the role of social workers.
(Readers may also be interested in the Sharon Shoesmith interview on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour that explores the complexity of safeguarding and how it comes about that media organisations (and even government ministers) can act ‘anti-transparently’ and against the interests of the very children they purport to be interested in protecting.