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Children killed in Stafford house fire suffered months of neglect, report finds

Four children who died in a house fire in Stafford had suffered from neglect and barely talked, a serious case review has found.

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Keegan Unitt, 6, Tilly Unitt, 4, Olly Unitt, 3, and their older brother Riley Holt, 8

Riley Holt, eight, Keegan Unitt, six, Tilly Rose Unitt, four, and Olly Unitt, three, were killed in the blaze at their home in the Highfields area of the town in February 2019.

The children’s mother Natalie Unitt and her partner Chris Moulton escaped the blaze after jumping out of a window with their two-year-old son Jack, and were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter by gross negligence.

However the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Ms Unitt and Mr Moulton over the fire, which was started in the early hours by un-extinguished cigarettes in the house in Sycamore Lane.

A report from from Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Safeguarding Children Board has now said that social care services "fell short" in the build-up to the fatal blaze.

The aftermath of the blaze in Sycamore Lane

The children had been on a child protection plan drawn up by the local authority due to concerns over their mistreatment since July 2017 and the family had been on the radar of authorities for even longer.

"There were concerns the children were suffering significant harm as a result of neglect," the report said, but added "there were no concerns about parental mental ill health, substance misuse or domestic abuse – apart from the one alleged incident."

Joanna Nicolas, lead author of the review, said the focus had been "very much on the parents" rather than the youngsters.

Ms Nicolas said one of the greatest concerns over the youngsters had been their "extremely limited speech" as she cited developmental delays.

The report said: "The word 'feral' was used to describe one of the children when they started at nursery. The mother did not accept, then and now, that the children were neglected.

"One of the greatest concerns about the children was their lack of speech. Professionals described the home as silent despite there being five children in it."

Tributes left to the children in the aftermath of the fire

During an appointment with a paediatrician, one of the children "grunted and pointed at things" with the children also sustaining 50 injuries, marks or bruises over 17 months.

Their parents claimed one of the bruises was Playdough and two other marks were down to the youngster bumping into a sofa, the safeguarding report said.

The report said the mother was "constantly cancelling" or changing appointments, with the tenacity of the health professionals praised as they "chivvied and chased" her.

But it added: "There is considerable evidence that the professionals were listening to what the mother said rather than looking at the evidence.

"The mother's word for everything seems to have just been accepted and how could the children’s lived experience ever be understood if everything professionals were told was just accepted?

The fire started in the early hours of the morning

"Each of the mother’s explanations for the numerous injuries were accepted even though on one occasion the mother admitted lying about the cause of one of the bruises.

"There should have been endless questions from professionals."

Professionals had also focused "almost exclusively" on the mother who was the "more visible and louder" parent despite the father providing most of the care in the home.

The report found there was "little evidence" anything improved significantly for the children as a result of being on the child protection plan and there was "considerable evidence that the continuing maltreatment over that 19 months will have done them considerable harm".

At the inquest last month, Mr Moulton said he and Ms Unitt had been smoking in bed on the evening of the fire and were later awoken by the blaze – but said that he could not remember how they became aware of the fire.

Mr Moulton and Ms Unitt told the hearing that the fire started on the landing of the property, but this was disputed by the fire investigation officer and senior investigating officer from Staffordshire Police who said it started in the master bedroom.

Detective Inspector Alan Lyford, the lead investigator for Staffordshire Police, said: "They [Mr Moulton and Ms Unitt] were spoken to individually as witnesses, then they were arrested in connection to offence and spoken to under caution. There were discrepancies in the accounts they provided as witnesses and suspects, and discrepancies with each other.

"We engaged heavily with the Crown Prosecution Service. They determined there was insufficient evidence to prosecute them on this matter."

The coroner recorded a narrative conclusion.

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