Shannon Matthews case: social services 'not at fault'

SOCIAL workers and other agencies which had worked with Shannon Matthews' family for 13 years could not have prevented her abduction by her own family.

A summary of the serious case review into the involvement of 22 agencies in Shannon's life painted a picture of a chaotic home environment in which her mother, Karen Matthews, put her relationships with men over the needs of her children.

But it said that although lessons could be learned, there were no systemic failings and no-one had faced disciplinary action.

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The Kirklees Safeguarding Children Board review found there was "little leeway" for social services and other agencies to intervene before Shannon, then aged nine, was abducted from her home in Dewsbury Moor, West Yorkshire, by her mother and her stepfather's uncle in February 2008.

Alison O'Sullivan, director for children and young people at Kirklees Council, said: "This was an unprecedented case and it was not possible to foresee that Shannon would fall prey to abduction by people closest to her."

Ms O'Sullivan said the review was clear that, despite interventions with the family over more than a decade, the "threshold" for removing a child from the home was never reached.

Shannon, now 11, disappeared in February 2008 and was discovered 24 days later after a massive police operation.

After a massive police operation costing more than 3 million, she was discovered 24 days later at Michael Donovan's flat, less than a mile away.

Last year, mother-of-seven Matthews, then 33, was jailed for eight years for her part in what a judge described as a "truly despicable" plot. Donovan, then 40, was also jailed for eight years.

Shannon was found in the base of a bed in Donovan's flat in Lidgate Gardens, Batley Carr, West Yorkshire.

The youngster had been drugged as part of a plan Donovan and Matthews hatched to claim a 50,000 reward.

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The court was told that the ordeal left Shannon "disturbed and traumatised" and suffering from nightmares.

Kirklees Council announced a serious case review after Matthews and Donovan were convicted in December 2008.

The review concluded that the family's history was characterised by "neglectful parenting interspersed with periods of adequate parental care".

It confirmed that Shannon was placed on the child protection register with another sibling in 2002 for a number of reasons, including her mother's failure to prioritise "their need for a consistent and secure parental relationship over her own need for relationships with a number of male partners".

It said the reasons for the move related to Matthews' "failure to ensure safe and adequate parenting", including "protecting them from contact with individuals who posed a risk of physical and/or sexual abuse", ensuring they went to school and providing a comfortable home environment.

The report also said it failed to find an explanation for how or why Shannon took prescription-only drugs prior to her abduction.

The panel said there was one occasion when agencies seriously considered removing Shannon from the home but it said it could not elaborate on what provoked this for legal reasons.

The report did find that social services should have agreed to Matthews' request for one of her children to be taken into care and said this might have been beneficial for the child.

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But the report concluded: "In the context of this history, there was little leeway for professionals to have pursued alternative interventions prior to the third child's abduction."

Review author Dr Carole Smith told a press conference in Huddersfield that Matthews was "attached to her children and her children were attached to her".

She said: "There was a bond of affection between them."

Dr Smith said Matthews had difficulty translating her affection into good, practical parenting.

Sheila Dilks, from NHS Kirkless, told the press conference: "There won't be a person involved with this family that hasn't had many a sleepless night."

The review said the case demonstrated the difficulty of responding effectively to families where parenting was characterised by low-level neglect.

It concluded that was a matter which raises issues regarding national policy implementation as well as local action.

Under questioning about where Matthews was on the "pantheon of motherhood", the panel said that around 300,000 families in Britain showed signs of this low-level neglect.

It said Matthews refused to take part in the review.

Last week ministers confirmed that full reports of serious case reviews into the most notorious cases of child abuse are to be published, including the one relating to Shannon.

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Today, Ms O'Sullivan said the board "will be doing our utmost to publish in full".

Dewsbury Tory MP Simon Reevell said: "I am pleased that Kirklees Council has accepted the need to publish the full report, that is important.

"And I am pleased that this was not some sort of catastrophic failure that meant other children had been put at risk."

He said it was important that the media did not just focus on the behaviour of the people who carried out this "bizarre crime" when judging the town.

He added: "The community rallied round. It is important to remember people went out every night to look for this girl. That's what defines this town."