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A Tale of 10 Children (2005)

Written by: 
01 January 2005

Occasionally we receive e-mails asking if the stories in this "Tale" are true. Sadly they all are, and similar stories continue today.

1945: Child 1 - Dennis O'Neil 

Dennis O'Neil died on January 9th 1945, aged 13. Dr A J Rhodes, the pathologist at the Royal Salop Infirmary, Shropshire, reported the boy was undernourished, thin, wasted and well below normal weight. He had septic ulcers on his feet and his legs were severely chapped. He had died from cardiac failure after being struck on the back with a stick, and struck violent blows on the chest. Photographs of his body showed he had been subjected to the most cruel and sadistic treatment. 

Dennis's food, according to his younger brother, who survived, was usually three pieces of bread and butter, and tea. The brothers used to creep to the pantry to find food, but were usually discovered and then beaten unmercifully, getting as many as 100 "stripes" in a day. Dennis was so hungry he used to crawl to the nearby cattle and suck at their udders. There had hardly been a single night when they had not been thrashed in a long time. 

On the night before his death Dennis had been beaten for biting into a swede. He was lashed, naked, to a bench with a rope and beaten with a stick until his legs were all blue and swollen. He could not stand and was locked in a cubbyhole. That night he was banged on his chest with fists; he had cried out in pain "my back, my back". His brother said he was pummelled yet again on the morning he died.

1956: Child 2 - Toddler Holdsworth 

Toddler Holdsworth was 2 when he died. For more than a year before his death his mother thrashed him with straps, and buckles on straps, causing wounds all over his head, neck, back and limbs, "because the child was dirty in his habits". The judge described it as "systematic torture" and "one of the most shocking cases of its kind that I can remember" and his death as "a merciful release".

1967: Child 3 - Michael Buckingham 

On January 16th 1967 18-month old Michael Buckingham was murdered by his father. Dr Alan Usher, the Home Office pathologist, said he found three areas of scalding on Michael, 17 burns and 47 bruises. He concluded the boy must have suffered appalling shock and pain before he died. In a statement the boy's father said "I must have been in one of my moods. I punched him and burnt him with the poker. I poured some boiling water on a rag and cleaned him up with it. I do not think he is mine. I have knocked him about before to get back at the wife.. He never seemed to like me."

1973: Child 4 - Maria Colwell 

Maria Colwell died on 6th January 1973, aged 7. Maria, removed from her mother's care due to neglect, had been living happily with an aunt after her father's death, but was returned to her mother at the mother's request. Despite warnings of abuse, and 30 calls to social services from neighbours, she was left in a violent household. One neighbour reported the child being hit for being dirty, and saw her at a window with a blackened face "and one eye just a pool of blood." The neighbour asked NSPCC and Social Services: "What protection does a child have against her parents? Does she have to be killed before they take her away?" In Maria's case the answer was yes. Maria was taken to hospital in a pram, after being beaten by her stepfather the night before. She was found to be dead on arrival. She had 2 bruised eyes, bruising on neck, back, arms and legs, severe internal injuries and brain damage. Her stomach was empty.

1984: Child 5 - Jasmine Lorrington 

Jasmine Lorrington was 4 when she died in Brent on 5th July 1984. She was so badly beaten, burnt, starved and tortured that scarcely a single part of her body was without injury. Dr Iain West of Guy's Forensic Medicine Department described her as looking like a Belsen victim. She had been kept a prisoner in a small bedroom with body-building weights tied to a broken leg to stop her moving. When she died she was emaciated and deformed, and weighed 1 stone 9 lb. She suffered "appalling cruelty", with 20 separate areas of bone injury, before finally being battered to death by her stepfather, dying of punches to the head. The social worker responsible for visiting Jasmine said in evidence to the subsequent enquiry that "the family obviously loved the children", though she admitted having seen Jasmine only once in 10 months, as she believed the family's excuses for her non-availability. 

Jasmine's mother and stepfather had met as children in a school for the educationally subnormal.

1991: Child 6 - Martin Nicoll 

20-month old Martin Nicoll died when his stepfather threw him from the bathroom into the hall, hitting his head against the door surround. The blow resulted in a fractured skull, blood clot and massive swelling of the brain. Pathologists recorded a further 67 injuries including a fractured wrist, missing fingernail, twisted ankle and numerous bruises, cuts and abrasions. Martin had suffered a series of horrific and savage beatings. A family friend said he had on 4 or 5 occasions seen the baby hit so hard he was knocked to the floor. His mother hid him from her family because he was so badly injured "I couldn't even look at him". In evidence his mother told how the stepfather forced an earring through the baby's ear, tore off a fingernail and force-fed him lager. She told a tale of horrific domestic violence. As her husband was led from court he reached over and punched his wife so hard he sent her reeling down a flight of stairs to the cells below.

2000: Child 7 - Victoria Climbié 

8-yr-old Victoria Climbié had a kettle of boiling water tipped over her head. Her toes were struck with a hammer. She was beaten with a bicycle chain, belt buckle and had cigarettes stubbed out on her body. She lived in a freezing bath. On 25th February 2000 Victoria died of hypothermia and multiple organ failure, with 128 horrific injuries to her body, after suffering months of horrific abuse and neglect in a tiny flat in Tottenham, London.

2000: Child 8 - Lauren Wright 

Lauren Wright was found dead on 6th May 2000 after suffering a fatal blow to the stomach from her stepmother, which caused her digestive system to collapse. Lauren was described as "a cheerful little girl with nothing but trust and a ready smile". Her stepmother starved her. Aged 6 at her death, Lauren's weight was half the average for a 3-year-old. Her stepmother forced her to eat insects and pepper sandwiches, made her stand in front of a fire until she screamed with pain, and beat her severely. Lauren had a life of unimaginable misery. Emaciated, with 60 bruises on her back, arms, shoulders and legs, her death was slow and agonising. Lauren's stepmother was found guilty of manslaughter, as was her father, who had turned a blind eye to her abuse. One villager from her home of Welney in Norfolk stated that a year before the death he had seen her stepmother, in the street, punch Lauren on the head with "incredible" force, knocking her to the ground. The stepmother had walked on, and the little girl had got up with silent tears streaming down her face, and chased after her stepmother. The villager had felt "sick to his stomach" but had not reported the incident because "he didn't want to get involved".

2002: Child 9 - Ainlee Labonte 

In January 2002 Ainlee Labonte, of Plaistow, east London, aged two years and 7 months, was starved, punched, scalded, burnt and tortured to death by her parents. She had 64 scars, scalds and bruises on her body, including cigarette burns. She weighed just 9.5kg (21lbs), about half the normal weight of a child that age. She had not been fed for 2 days. Health visitors were paralysed by fear of her violent parents and would not visit their home. Her mother, who was 17 when Ainlee was born, had been abused as a child. A child protection expert, Miss Kenward, giving evidence to Newham's enquiry, said Ainlee had experienced unimaginable pain and loneliness before she died.

2003: Child 10 - John Gray 

Tiny John Gray, just 21-months old, suffered more than 200 injuries before he died. John suffered a series of beatings from his mother's partner. He had more then 200 injuries to 92 parts of his body. His liver had been ruptured, he had a fractured arm, broken ribs and injuries to his testicles. His mother and her partner failed to call for medical help. The dead boy's father said he had reported to the police in Fife, Scotland, where he lived, that his son was being injured by his wife's lover, but that police said they could take no action as the offences were committed in England.

Society's response 

Dennis O'Neill's foster father was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment for manslaughter. The judge told him his behaviour had "shocked the world, and shocked England". It had indeed - so much so, that as a result of the subsequent outcry the verdict was commuted on appeal to murder and the sentence increased to 10 years. 

Toddler Holdsworth's mother was sentenced to 7 years. Patrick Harvey's mother got 2½ years. Maria Colwell's stepfather was sentenced to life, reduced on appeal to 8-years. Jasmine Lorrington's stepfather was sentenced to 10 years, her mother to 18 months. Martin Nicoll's mother was sentenced to 12 months, her husband to life. Victoria Climbié's aunt and her boyfriend were both jailed for life. Ainlee Labonte's parents were jailed for ten and 12 years. John Gray's mother and her lover were both sentenced to 5 years. 

Whether the parents or step-parents received 12 months, 2½ years, 5 years, 8 years, 10 years or life, the children remained dead. Society has a need to punish; but there is no evidence it effectively deters other offenders (A Rand Corporation study shows it is less effective than parent training - see The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.)


Why do parents kill their children? Ania Wilczynski from the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University has identified 11 reasons why parents kill, including revenge, jealousy and rejection. However the most common reason is an effort to discipline. "Often serious physical assault of a child began with an attempt at discipline" she said. "That initial assault is often the first step towards a fatal attack, and while society continues to condone hitting children we are guilty of allowing some to cross a non-existent barrier." A core issue is that many parents have unrealistic expectations of what a child is capable of at whatever age it is, and punish it - sometimes unto death - for failing to behave with a maturity beyond its capability. 

The examples given above are but a tip of an iceberg. In my research for "The WAVE Report" I came across over 100 examples such as the 10 above - Jean Titchener of Camberwell, whose mother used to burn her hands and feet with a lamp, and whose body was "just one mass of sores" (died 1946); Susan Yate, of King's Lynn, who died in hospital 3 days after she was found with a ruptured lung and multiple bruises from a savage beating (1955); Patrick Harvey of Birmingham, who was beaten to death by his mother with a 2-foot stick because he had soiled his trousers (1962); James Nunn, of Norfolk, whose father battered him, inflicting "horrifying injuries", because the 3-week old kept him awake at night (1973 - he got 2 years probation); Heidi Koseda of Hillingdon, who died of thirst and starvation, locked in a cupboard while her family carried on as normal outside. A post mortem found bits of nappy in her stomach, which she had eaten in a desperate attempt to keep alive (1985); Leanne White, who was beaten to death by her stepfather, who made her sleep on the floor. She suffered 107 external injuries and died of internal bleeding and repeated blows to the stomach (1992); Jacob Jenkinson who was smothered to death by his father (1999).

Public Inquiries 

Deaths such as those above often led to Public Inquiries - I counted 24 in the 1970s, 25 in the 1980s and 22 in the 1990s - but no visible reduction in levels of child abuse (and in parallel there has been a marked worsening in levels of violence in society, of which abuse and neglect are primary causes). From WAVE's point of view the reason is simple - the Public Inquiries generally addressed the symptoms of child abuse, not its root causes. As a result, we now react to the symptoms more swiftly, more intelligently and more effectively than ever before. We still do not address the root causes - so the abuse keeps occurring. It is as if we are stood at the bottom of a cliff where bodies fall, becoming ever more skilled at dealing with the broken and falling bodies, but never going to the top of the cliff to stop the flow of bodies in the first place. 

WAVE's proposal is that we move to the top of the cliff. We intervene before the abuse takes place.

Trends in violence against children 

Finally, let us turn to UK statistics on violence against children. Here I have no information on which to base an assumption that trends in official figures reflect reality, understate or overstate the true position. What is evident is that they show no improvement.

England & Wales: Recorded Offences against Children

Offence number 11 13 74
Year Cruelty to or Neglect of Children Child Abduction Gross Indecency With a Child
1991    196 1,147
1995   335  1,287
1996   374  1,215
1997 2,300 390  1,269
1997/98 2,631 391  1,314 
1998/99 2,558 490  1,271
1999/00 3,067 577  1,365 
2000/01 4,109  546  1,336
2001/02 6,081 584  1,661 
2002/03   846  1,880 
2003/04   921  1,942
Rise since 1991: +164%*  +370%  +69%

* Since 1999 - no official data before 1999

I do not know the true position as far as child abuse is concerned. Numbers on the Child Protection Register fell by one-third between 1991 and 1999 (Department of Health, 1999), but the NSPCC states that this could reflect changes in system or operating practices rather than an actual change in maltreatment. 

We do know that true levels of child abuse far exceed those reported to the police. I was very struck, some years ago, by a Director of the NSPCC who stated that, despite all their best efforts, child abuse levels in the UK had not reduced over the previous 50 years. The NSPCC Report "Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom" (Cawson, Wattam, Brooker & Kelly, 2000) estimated 7% of UK children have been "seriously" physically abused (violent treatment by parents or carers regularly over years; or bruising, marks, soreness and pain lasting to the next day or longer on more than half the occasions; or suffering physical injury through parental treatment; or regularly and violently shaken). 14% were estimated to have suffered intermediate physical abuse (e.g. irregular violent treatment). A further 3% were in a "cause for concern" category (e.g. received physical discipline regularly over years, but the effects lasted until the next day on less than half the occasions).

The NSPCC takes a more tolerant view than I would do. My work as a psychologist tells me that even the children in the "cause for concern" category will carry lasting damaging emotional effects through their lives as a result of having received such discipline - even if (especially if?) they have dealt with it by shutting off their feelings and denying it did them harm.

Whichever definition one takes, the NSPCC survey suggests 20-25% of UK children suffer physical abuse at some level. They also estimate that 6% experienced serious absence of care, and 9% intermediate absence of care. Whether these levels are higher or lower than 20 or 50 years ago is impossible to say. What one can say is that they are unacceptable in any civilised society, and especially in one which has shown by signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that it is committed to protecting children from harm. 

Why are current policies failing - because clearly they are? We in WAVE believe the explanation for that is remarkably simple. Governments, of all hues, have consistently poured money into tackling symptoms rather than root causes. WAVE calls on all concerned citizens to join it in educating governments, not just in the UK but all over the world, that:

  1. Although violence is increasing alarmingly in our society, it is neither universal nor inevitable, but a behaviour that is caused and can be prevented. Many societies have existed without discernible inter-personal violence. 
  2. A violent act results from an interaction between two components: an individual's propensity (personal factors) and external triggers (social factors). Social factors alone, however undesirable, lead to violence only when the internal propensity is also present. In the absence of a weapon, a trigger is harmless. 
  3. The structure of the developing infant human brain is a crucial factor in the establishment (or not) of violent tendencies because early patterns are established not only psychologically but at the physiological level of brain formation.
  4. The propensity to violence develops primarily from wrong treatment before age 3. The prime cause is absence of empathy, itself a result of the failure of parents or prime carers to attune with infants. Absence of such parental attunement combined with harsh discipline is a recipe for violent, antisocial offspring. 
  5. Violence is triggered in high-propensity people by social factors such as unemployment, poor housing, over-crowding, economic inequality, declining moral values and stress. Alcohol plays a significant role in the timing of violence. Since these factors reflect long-term cultural trends that are difficult to reverse, investment in reducing the number of people with propensity to violence is a strategic imperative.   
  6. The single most effective way to stop producing people with the propensity to violence is to ensure infants are reared in an environment that fosters their development of empathy. The surest way to achieve this is by supporting parents in developing attunement with their infants. 
  7. Violence costs the UK more than £20 billion per annum. A tiny fraction of this is spent on prevention, and most of that on the least effective age groups (e.g. 5-15). Early (0-3) intervention is fruitful and cost-effective. Negative cycles can be transformed and children given the opportunity to grow into contributing, personally fulfilled adults (and future parents).
  8. Many effective early interventions already exist, including programmes dedicated to developing attunement and empathy in tomorrow's parents while they are still in school as well as supporting current parents and parents-to-be in bringing up non-violent children.