Missed chances of ending 20 years of cruelty

Welfare professionals missed a string of chances to raise concerns about a “sadistic” foster mother who subjected three children to physical and mental abuse over 20 years, it was claimed yesterday.

Among those who saw the children who were in the care of Eunice Spry were doctors, a psychiatrist and a dentist who treated one child six times after she suffered broken teeth.

Reports of concerns over the children reached social workers several times. The concerns were investigated but no action was taken.

On Tuesday Spry was found guilty of 26 charges including child cruelty, unlawful wounding and actual bodily harm at Bristol crown court.

She will be sentenced next month. It was revealed that Spry beat the children, two girls and a boy with sticks and metal bars, scrubbed their skin with sandpaper and forced them to eat blocks of lard, bleach, vomit and even their own faeces. She treated the children as if they were her slaves, ordering one to stay in a wheelchair for four years even though she could walk so she could claim benefits for her.

Reviews into the way Spry, 62, was able to mistreat and, at times, torture the three children are under way and systems have been introduced to detect such abuse.

But Jo Grills, chair of the Gloucestershire Safeguarding Board (GSB), conceded there were “several” professionals who could have “raised issues” that may have stopped Spry.

The Jehovah’s Witness regarded as a pillar of her local community would punish the children because she thought they were possessed by the devil and once kept two imprisoned, naked and starving, in a room for a month. At the end of the trial the GSB, the body now responsible for monitoring agencies and organisations in charge of children’s welfare in the county, said one of the problems was that the children had been seen by “many different people”, none of whom had an overview.

The GSB also said that information was not shared, one of the failings which led to the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie and to major changes in the childcare system. But yesterday it became clear that a number of health professionals could have stepped in. Ms Grills said: “If someone had told social services, a strategy discussion would have taken place.” Another problem was that Spry made sure the children saw many different doctors rather than just one who might have built up a picture of abuse, and tried to make sure they never saw a doctor alone.

The director of public health in Gloucestershire, Shona Arora, said changes had been made including ensuring children are seen alone when there are concerns.

Social workers were alerted several times, including when Spry fixed a sign on to the dress of one of the girls reading: “This child is evil. Do not look at her or talk to her. She wets the bed and is an attention seeker.” Social workers investigated but took no action.

After the courts gave Spry legal parental responsibility for the children, social services had less power to intervene.

She educated the children at home, and would move home to make it harder for her abuse to be detected.

Darren Shaw, director of services for children and young people in Gloucestershire, said more powers were needed to make sure children educated at home are not ill-treated. The council will lobby the government on the issue.

By the late 1990s Spry’s biological daughter, then aged 25, considered reporting her to social services, but never did. By then social services were no longer visiting the children because she was now their legal guardian. Only when two left home as adults did the truth come out.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday March 22, 2007.
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