Brandon Muir: Another child left to a dreadful fate

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BRANDON Muir endured a horrifically painful death. The toddler was badly beaten by his mother's boyfriend for several weeks until a final brutal attack left him in agony for 24 hours before he died.

The shocking case was another avoidable tragedy, said campaigners, who claimed all the "classic warning signs were there".

Brandon and his family were known to social services but exact details are shrouded in secrecy as Dundee City Council is conducting a review into the case and says it cannot comment.

However, it is known that social workers had been involved with the family a year earlier. And only four days before he died, Brandon was seen with a scab near his eye and dried blood below his nose. His mother told a health visitor he had been hurt falling out of bed.

Even the former partner of the man who killed Brandon told social services the toddler had been assaulted.

The court heard others had seen alarming behaviour but had failed to alert the authorities.

With its startling echoes of the Baby P case in London, campaigners want to know how the authorities failed to prevent the 23-month-old toddler's death at the hands of Robert Cunningham and why such a vulnerable little boy was never placed on the child protection register.

Last night, experts said Brandon's home life showed the "classic" signs of neglect and that it was inconceivable no-one had taken action.

Brandon's mother, Heather Boyd, was a known heroin user and prostitute, and campaigners say it is normal practice for children in such situations to be put on the "at risk" register. Ms Boyd was acquitted last week of culpable homicide by failing to get her son medical treatment after he fell ill.

Campaigners insist all the "red flag" warning signs should have been obvious to social workers.Cunningham – Ms Boyd's boyfriend – had a record of violence, having often beaten up his former girlfriend and another young boy. Yet social services did not remove Brandon from the Dundee home he shared with his mother and Cunningham.

Describing the boy's death as Scotland's Baby P case, Sandra Brown, a former child care lecturer, said she felt very strongly that Brandon had been let down by the system.

"If the mother was drug user, then the child would be at risk,'' she said. "I would be very concerned to hear that children were not being placed on the at-risk register. We really need some answers … this child has slipped under the radar.

"We're tired of reading about these awful cases – Baby P, Victoria Climbi and Caleb Ness. Each time we're told that lessons will be learned. Yet again, why has this boy been allowed to die?"

Brandon died from a ruptured intestine and broken ribs after being assaulted by Cunningham on 15 March last year. Cunningham, 23, denied murdering Brandon, who died after suffering more than 40 injuries. He was convicted of the lesser charge of culpable homicide and will be sentenced later this month.

Brandon's father, John Muir, said after the verdict: "Robert's been done with culpable homicide, which is five to ten years, and if he gets five years, he'll be out in a year and a bit. Brandon's life was (worth] more than that."

The jury was told Brandon would have suffered a painful death. A post-mortem examination revealed cuts and bruises on his head, shoulder blades, abdomen, back and hands, and abrasions on the inside of his eye. Police reports said the injuries dated from the last three weeks of the little boy's life, after Cunningham had moved into the home in Balunie Crescent.

Police sources told The Scotsman: "Social work was definitely involved, as were health. They have records of Cunningham and Boyd and they knew about Cunningham's ex. But there was significant stuff that has come out that hadn't been reported.

"Witnesses said they saw Brandon Muir being assaulted, ill-treated. The bottom line is this: should you expect social work, health to go and find these things out? Maybe there is a case to say 'yes, they should'. But surely there has got to be some responsibility for other people – friends, neighbours, relatives – to step up to the mark."

Ms Boyd's mother, Veronica, told the court she called social services in February 2008 and told them she and her husband were "not happy about the relationship Heather had got herself into".

Neighbours and friends said they frequently heard shouting from the flat. A former care assistant even told how she saw Cunningham throwing the child across a room just weeks before he died.

Joanne Dunn, 24, said: "I saw him slapping Brandon, heaving him by the arm and basically throwing him … like a dolly."

It emerged that the toddler existed in an often chaotic environment, in squalid conditions. Ms Boyd's flat had only one bed and it had no sheets or pillows. Neighbours reported hearing male and female voices shouting at the youngster and Ms Boyd failed to attend medical appointments with her son.

Health visitor Sinead McLaughlin saw Brandon at his mother's flat on 12 March last year. She was surprised at the lack of interaction between the boy and his mother but said "health and weight-wise" Brandon was "satisfactory".

The Dundee Children and Young Persons Protection Committee refused to answer detailed questions from The Scotsman on how often the boy was visited by social services and to what extent there were concerns about his welfare.

But campaigners said social workers should have picked up on the warning signs. Anne Houston, chief executive of the charity Children 1st, said: "This little boy was tragically let down by the very people who should have had his best interests at heart.

"In almost every case where an abused or neglected child dies, it emerges friends or neighbours were concerned but for various reasons did not act. We need to find a way to increase public confidence, so that when a person senses that something is amiss they know what to do and who to talk to."

Kathleen Marshall, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People said: "This case highlights critical issues around child protection and also around the physical punishment of children."

She added: "Child protection services across Scotland are seriously under resourced."

Liz Smith, the Scottish Tories' education spokeswoman, called the case "nothing less than horrific".

She said: "This boy was failed systematically, by his parents and by society as a whole."

Richard Baker, Labour's justice spokesman, said: "The whole of Scotland is shocked and saddened after the death of Brandon Muir. No sentence will ever make up for the death of a child."

It was claimed Brandon could still be alive today had neighbours and friends contacted the authorities.

Chief Inspector Willie Semple, of Tayside Police, said:

"When we carried out this inquiry, we uncovered a lot of information from people. If they had shared that with social workers, potentially we would not have had a trial."

Boyfriend faces jail after he is found guilty of killing

DRUG addict Robert Cunningham is facing a lengthy jail term after being convicted of killing Brandon Muir.

The toddler died from a ruptured intestine aged just 23 months after being assaulted by Cunningham a year ago.

Cunningham, 23, who denied murdering Brandon, was convicted by a majority verdict at the High Court in Glasgow yesterday of the lesser charge of culpable homicide.

Brandon was attacked by Cunningham after he climbed on to a window ledge at a flat in Dundee on 15 March, 2008.

He had been left in the care of Cunningham the day before he died while his mother, Heather Boyd, went to the supermarket.

Ms Boyd, 23, a heroin addict, said her son was unwell when she returned. She was cleared last week of charges against her, including her son's culpable homicide.

In evidence, it emerged that the social work department had been in contact with Ms Boyd before her son's death and a review of child protection services in the city is now under way.

During the trial, Cunningham's ex-girlfriend alleged that she had seen Ms Boyd slap Brandon in February 2008 and had told social services.

She denied that she made the accusation out of revenge because Cunningham was now in a relationship with Ms Boyd.

The court heard Cunningham had been living with Ms Boyd and her two children for 18 days before Brandon's death, the day after the attack.

Cunningham was convicted of seizing Brandon, making him stand against a wall or other surface and applying pressure to his abdomen "by means unknown" the day before he died.

He told the jury he got on "brilliantly" with the youngster but had smacked him on the hand and told him to stand by a wall as punishment after the child climbed on to a windowsill at the Balunie Crescent flat.

Charges that Ms Boyd ill-treated Brandon and that she killed her son by her failure to obtain medical help for him following Cunningham's assault were dropped last week.

Cunningham was also acquitted of ill-treating Brandon and another young child in the six months before the toddler's death.

Pathologists who conducted a post-mortem examination on Brandon's body found cuts and bruises on his head, shoulder blades, abdomen, back and hands, and abrasions on the inside of his eye.

Police reports said the injuries dated from the last three weeks of Brandon's life, the period after Cunningham had moved into the family home.

Medical experts said Brandon's injuries had been caused by a ''massive blow'' to his stomach area that ruptured the child's duodenum.

Cunningham was convicted of culpable homicide after jurors took just one hour and 25 minutes to return their majority verdict.

Judge John Morris deferred sentence until 31 March for background reports.

Cunningham showed no emotion when the verdict was returned following a 20-day trial.

'There is always someone who knew – but said nothing'

SUPPORT for the family or protection of the child: this is the difficult choice facing child protection workers every day, writes Tim Huntingford.

If a child is deemed to be at risk, can the parents be helped to become better carers, or is the danger considered sufficient to make it necessary to remove the child to a place of safety?

"Risk assessment" has become the new orthodoxy in so many aspects of our lives, from the safety of the office kettle to the safety of a child. Unfortunately, if it is a simple task to assess the safety of a kettle, it is very hard to measure the danger parents pose to their children. Risk assessment increasingly tends to be treated as a science, capable of being fitted to a formula. But where the welfare of children is concerned, it is not a science but a complex art; where, because of the vagaries of humanity, there are no certainties.

Where it is a clear-cut case of injury, or sexual abuse, it is easier to be clear and act; but where neglect or emotional abuse is concerned, it is harder to be sure.

If domestic violence or alcohol and drugs are involved, the picture becomes ever more complex. Addicted parents are not by definition incapable of caring for their children, but if this leads to neglect of the needs of a child then removal may be the only course.

The cases that give most concern are not necessarily those where deprivation is the issue – it is privation that is the biggest threat. The hopelessness and emptiness of the lives of so many of our children is a standing rebuke to our society; the lack of a sense of belonging and the emotional barrenness of so much family life condemn so many of our children to repeat the life cycle of their parents – with the accompanying wish to escape into drugs, alcohol and petty crime. Of course, those charged with child protection – police, health, education and social work – need to improve their information sharing, their collective decision making, their levels of healthy scepticism about what parents tell them, and their physical examination of children at risk.

Yet if we really want to make a difference and to improve the protection of children, we need to be better at spotting the signs at an early stage, and to intervene before the problems become entrenched.

I have never come across a child abuse case that ended in tragedy where people – neighbours, family, the local community – did not after the event say in court or in an investigation: "I thought there was something not right with that child, but I didn't think it was my place to say anything."

By the time the statutory services are alerted, it may be too late. If we want significantly to enhance the safety and protection of our children, then we all have to accept that it is our responsibility to look out for our children, and to speak up when we think "something is not right".

&#149 Tim Huntingford is the independent chair of Renfrewshire Child Protection Committee.