Dani Garavelli: Cycle of abuse must be broken before it’s too late

Police officers at Deveron Crescent in Hamilton where Dawn Mckenzie was killed. Picture: Hemedia
Police officers at Deveron Crescent in Hamilton where Dawn Mckenzie was killed. Picture: Hemedia
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Dawn McKenzie was killed at her home in Hamilton in June 2011 by her foster son Child D after an argument over the use of his laptop. A fatal accident inquiry concluded the troubled 13-year-old should never have been put in her care

THE judgment in the fatal accident inquiry into the death of Dawn McKenzie at the hands of her foster son was published last week, and it made for bleak reading. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sheriff David Bicket concluded the troubled 13-year-old should never have been put in her care. This was no reflection on the way she conducted herself. The placement appeared to be going well until the argument over the removal of his laptop tipped over into violence in June 2011. But Dawn was inexperienced and the teenager’s problems were complex and entrenched; as first-time fosterers, she and her husband Bryan should have been matched with a younger child, the sheriff said.

Dawn Mckenzie. Picture: Hemedia

Dawn Mckenzie. Picture: Hemedia

It is clear, however, that the ­McKenzies were not the only ones who were failed by the system. From the moment he was born – to a mother who was herself a victim of sexual abuse – the life of the boy – Child D – was shaped by neglect, violence and domestic chaos. The timeline of his experiences with the child protection services is an all-too familiar catalogue of under-resourcing, missed opportunities, the prioritising of his parents’ interests and the loss of direction and momentum known as “drift”.

Child D was the fourth of six children. The man named on his birth certificate as his father went on to have a relationship with the child’s grandmother. The father of his younger siblings, who lived with the family, had convictions for dishonesty and drug offences.

Social services became involved in 2003; the following year “aggressive family interactions and the antisocial behaviour of the older children” led to them being placed on the child protection register. By 2006, they had been taken off it, but the discovery that Child D’s mother had concealed heroin in one of the children’s clothes on a visit to see her partner in prison led the police to search the house and find it dirty and unsafe. She was given four months to clean up her act or the children would be taken into care.

By November, the situation was said to have “improved”. Yet in May 2007, a different social worker found previous assessments to be overly optimistic. The children were placed back on the register, but, despite reports of escalating neglect and a lack of engagement from both parents, they were not removed from their home until May 2008 (when Child D was around 10).

Even once they were placed with foster carers, their parents continued to exert a malign influence; they would turn up late for contact sessions, then devote all their attention to the girls. They threatened social workers and carers until the placement broke down. Child D was made to feel responsible.

And so it continued. The children were placed with another foster family. They seemed to settle, but every time they were in contact with their parents, they became distressed. These problems were exacerbated by a laptop they gave Child D so they could keep in touch. It was precisely such illicit and damaging contact that prompted Dawn McKenzie to remove Child D’s internet access in the days before he killed her.

It has been said before that those involved in the child protection system are guilty of over-identifying with biological parents. Many inadequate mums and dads love their kids and it is human nature to hope that, with the right support, it might be possible to keep families together. But in this case, as in others, too much faith was invested in the capacity of Child D’s parents to change. Despite refusing to co-operate, they were given chance after chance until it was too late to repair the damage they had inflicted.

The FAI also highlighted the inadvertent veering off-course that often takes place as social workers come and go, bureaucratic hurdles are encountered and important decisions are deferred until weeks turn into months turn into years. Almost 12 months elapsed between a 2007 assessment which concluded the children were in “the highest category of risk of neglect” and their removal from their home. The issue of “permanence” – the decision that Child D would never be returned to his parents and that a long-term/permanent placement should be sought – “became submerged in other work to be completed,” a serious case review in 2013 was told. The problem, it was said, was not so much drift as “derailment” as energy was focused on trying to get contact reduced through the children’s hearing system.

Though mistakes were made, there is little point in laying blame. What this tragedy illustrates is just how complex the challenge of helping vulnerable children is. The killing of Dawn McKenzie could not have been foreseen. Sheriff Bicket refers to her death as “unique among foster carers”. But when you look at the trajectory of Child D’s life from 0-13, I think you could have predicted things wouldn’t end well. At the very least, you might have guessed the abuse he endured would be passed down to another benighted generation.

There are thousands of children like Child D across Scotland and no pat solutions for any of them. But his experience suggests that when young lives are spiralling out of control we shouldn’t keep on offering parents chances. Given children as young as three can be psychologically scarred as a result of witnessing violence, early intervention is vital. How else can we ever hope to break the cycle?