Who is to blame for the Webster saga?

The case of Mark and Nicky Webster and their children has highlighted how authorities charged with the task of deciding the fate of youngsters who may have been abused are “damned if they do and damned if they don't”.

The case of Mark and Nicky Webster and their children has highlighted how authorities charged with the task of deciding the fate of youngsters who may have been abused are “damned if they do and damned if they don't”. Education correspondent STEVE DOWNES reports.

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Who would be a social worker? If you play a part in taking a child from its parents, you are labelled a “child-snatching meddler”.

If you decide not to intervene, despite nagging suspicions, then something horrific happens, you “stood by while monsters killed their kids”.

In the case of Mr and Mrs Webster, whose three older children were forcibly adopted when a judge found that they had inflicted six fractures on one of the youngsters, it is hard to see how things could have been done differently.

Just who are the scapegoats for what now appears to be a tragic miscarriage of justice? The easy targets, the social workers, only intervened to institute child protection proceedings when presented with damning evidence of abuse from medical experts who had examined Child B. They surely had no alternative but to put the child's safety first.

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Subsequently, a radiologist and three consultants concluded that the fractures were “non-accidental”, which meant they were certain they had been deliberately inflicted by one or both of the parents.

Faced with such overwhelming evidence, despite the protests of the bemused and heartbroken parents, the hearing before Judge Simon Barham in May 2004 was an open and shut case.

It would have been astonishing, and verging on scandalous, if Judge Barham had ignored the weight of expert evidence. On the face of it he had no choice but to rule that the injuries were the result of physical abuse.

Consider the possibilities if he had ignored the experts.

Say, for example, that one or more of Mr and Mrs Webster's children subsequently suffered more serious or even life-threatening injuries. Or, God forbid, that one of them was killed.

Judge Barham would have been in the firing line - getting the blame for standing by while children were harmed.

In fact, few people involved in the case would have been safe from the righteous rage of the media and the public.

If that sounds a little far-fetched, remember the cases of Lauren Wright and Victoria Climbie.

Six-year-old Lauren, from Welney, near Downham Market, was killed by stepmother Tracey in May 2000. A host of organisations had contact with Lauren before her death but a lack of firm action meant her plight was overlooked until it was too late.

Victoria, who was systematically tortured then killed by her aunt and her aunt's boyfriend in London, was seen by dozens of social workers, nurses, doctors and police officers before she died - but all failed to act on the abuse.

Quite rightly, an outpouring of anger rained down on the responsible adults involved in both cases. They failed to do even their basic duty, and children died.

The faces of those two little girls, and many other children who have slipped through the net, are no doubt in the front of the minds of social workers, doctors, consultants and judges as they make knife-edge decisions about the welfare of youngsters.

They dare not make the wrong decision, which surely means that in some cases children will be taken from their parents wrongly because judges feel they must err on the side of caution.

Now, in the light of new medical evidence suggesting Child B may have suffered the fractures because of undiagnosed scurvy, the Websters' case has altered.

Confronted with such inconsistency, Norfolk County Council simply had to relax its stance and Mr Justice Holman - who presided over the care hearing for the Websters' fourth child, Brandon, yesterday - could not rule against the anguished and apparently wronged against parents.

The result is that the couple can finally hold their heads high and build a future that is certain to include their little boy.

But the tragedy that continues to reverberate is that they will never be able to be the parents of their other three youngsters - despite being effectively exonerated.

Though it is not easy to apportion blame for this most heart-rending agony, one question remains.

How on earth did a litany of medical experts come up with such diametrically opposed conclusions?

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