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Sunday 16 August 2009

A boy whose bruises were covered with chocolate

Baby Peter's death shows how even a decent society can fail the vulnerable, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

THE tide of human suffering brought about by the failure to protect children respects no national boundaries. And the outpouring of anger that such a failure can bring about is not a monopoly of an Ireland still coming to terms with revelations of institutional abuse of children by religious orders.

Nor is a sense of hopelessness when confronted with such depravity. And so I hate writing this article, not just because it causes me to focus on the torture and murder of a small child, but because the more I read or have conversations about this case, the more hopeless I feel. England is as decent a society as you can get -- its politicians and social workers and charities try to do the right thing -- but it persistently fails vulnerable children.

Here's the story. Peter Connelly's mother, Tracey, was born in 1981 to an Irish immigrant, Mary O'Connor, allegedly drug-taking and promiscuous. As a mother she was so neglectful that her ragged and dirty daughter was known at school as 'Tracey the Tramp'.

When Tracey was 12, she says Mary sent her wild by telling her that the man she had called 'Dad' was dead, but that anyway her real father was a travelling salesman with whom Mary had lost touch. Because of accusations of physical abuse, Tracey and her brother were taken into care by Islington social services: he went to a children's home, which turned out to be run by a paedophile ring who groomed him as a recruiter; Tracey was sent to a boarding school for troubled children where schoolmates claim she was moody and promiscuous and would kiss other girls to get attention.

Tracey passed a few exams, including English and IT -- which would enable her to express herself eloquently on the internet -- and after a brief spell working in a hairdressers, at the age of 16 she took up with a man 17 years her senior. They would marry after the birth of their second daughter, who was joined by a third and then, in March 2006, to Tracey's delight, Peter, blue-eyed, lively, blond and cute, whom she thought cool. Tracey's biological father came back into her life -- he would turn out to have a conviction for raping a 14-year-old.

Tracey had had affairs along the way, including with Steven Barker, a neo-Nazi, who moved in with her in September 2006 when Peter's father left. Steven, 31, blond and 6ft 4in tall, Tracey told her internet mates, was "every girl's dream". Her hobbies were sex, chain-smoking and drinking vodka, and she spent hours on the internet watching hard-core porn, playing poker and in online chat rooms and becoming increasingly obese. Steven -- who has an IQ of 60, which qualifies as mildly retarded -- amused himself by torturing Peter, beating him, swinging him around by the neck, and training him to follow commands like a dog.

The population of the four-bedroom council flat expanded when Barker's elder brother Jason Owen arrived with four children, his 15-year-old girlfriend and a Rottweiler.

As a child, Steven had amused himself by breaking the legs of frogs and skinning them alive and had been prosecuted for cruelty to animals. Jason was a crack cocaine addict, and had convictions for arson, assault and burglary and Steven would allege in court that Jason's abuse of him in childhood was the cause of his sadism. In the late Nineties, the brothers' 82-year-old grandmother had accused them of torturing her to get her to change her will, but she died before they could be tried. Jason joined in the ill-treatment of Peter; Tracey stayed ever later at her computer and ever longer in bed, with or without Steven.

The social workers and health visitors who came to the flat on 60 occasions noticed that it was filthy and smelled of urine -- they may have missed the fleas and lice and the faeces and the bodies of rodents that were being fed to Steven's snakes -- but Tracey was an experienced manipulator who used to tell them what a loving mum she was and describe how she played with her children. She wielded skilfully the plucky single-mother card and successfully concealed from the visitors the fact that the flat housed 12, not six.

By the time her son died in August 2007, Tracey was pregnant by Steven, and Peter and two of his sisters were on the Haringey Child Protection Register because of fears they were being neglected and because Tracey had incautiously slapped a daughter in front of a school nurse. Peter was removed from home briefly because of worries expressed by doctors treating injuries, but was returned. On his social worker's last visit, Peter's bruises were disguised with chocolate. His body was found four days later in a blood-stained cot, covered in bruises and scabs; he had eight broken ribs, a torn earlobe, was missing a fingernail and a toenail and had a broken back. The doctor who had seen him two days earlier had thought him cranky, so hadn't examined him.

The trio were convicted last year of causing or allowing Peter's death: Steven got 12 years and Jason and Tracey indeterminate sentences. Their identities were protected so as not to prejudice the later trial of Steven Barker for raping a two-year-old (he got life), though the horrific details of 'Baby P' begat an internet storm (182 million hits when last I looked) and their names were known throughout the world even if kept out of the press until last week.

The blogging lynch-mob is now being fuelled by the tabloids: the Sun quotes inmates of 'evil' Tracey's prison saying that getting her "is only a matter of time".

The public is in a state of outrage not just about what happened to Peter, but because of the abysmal failure of the authorities and the discovery that millions will have to be spent to protect the trio when they're finally released.

Meanwhile, the lawsuits have begun. Five sacked Haringey employees and the doctor who missed Peter's broken back are suing for unfair dismissal; and his father, who saw him the weekend before he died, but handed him back, is seeking £200,000 compensation from the council. Tracey hopes Steven rots in hell; her mother Mary hopes Tracey rots in hell; and Steven and Jason's father says his sons are "monsters". The one thing they agree on is that it wasn't their fault.

So whose fault is it?

You tell me.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards