Liam Fee: Social worker makes 'scapegoat' claim

By Lisa Summers
Reporter, BBC Scotland Investigates

media captionLiam Fee social worker says she was 'scapegoat'

A former social worker struck off for her failings, including over murdered toddler Liam Fee, believes she has been made a "scapegoat".

Lesley Bate told the BBC she had made mistakes by not properly following up concerns about injuries found on Liam.

But, she said she went off sick a year before Liam's murder and his case was not passed to another social worker, so others should also be held accountable.

Fife Council said it would not discuss the circumstances of ex-staff members.

The council's social work department comes under the spotlight in a BBC documentary, Fife's Child Killings: The Untold Story, which examines three child deaths in Fife within a four-month period, in 2014.

image captionLiam Fee died after suffering a catalogue of abuse at the hands of his mother and her partner

Three-year-old Mikaeel Kular died at the hands of his mother in January that year, Liam Fee was murdered by his mother and her partner in March 2014 and two-year-old Madison Horn was killed by her mother's boyfriend the following month.

The documentary features an interview with Liam Fee's social worker, speaking publicly for the first time.

Ms Bate was part of the child protection team in Glenrothes.

She said she was struggling to cope with her workload and job pressures early in 2013, when she was dealing with Liam's case.

Her department had received calls in January and February 2013 from Liam's childminder, Heather Farmer, raising concerns about the toddler's injuries.

Ms Bate told the BBC she was effectively having a breakdown at the time and admitted she failed to properly follow-up these leads.

image captionHeather Farmer told the programme that she raised the alarm about Liam on three occasions

"I know I made mistakes," she said.

"I was falling apart. I shouldn't have been at work. I was just losing control."

The social worker went off sick in April 2013 and said her bosses went on a "fishing expedition" to find gaps in her record-keeping.

She was told in September that year she could face disciplinary action over her work on Liam's case and a number of others.

She said: "It seems that while I was off sick, no-one had picked Liam's case up and yet they could see that I hadn't done any work with it.

"In the September, Liam still had six months to live at that stage."

Two breakdowns

Lesley Bate's disciplinary hearing at Fife Council found the mistakes she had made were not serious enough for her to lose her job.

She said: "It was clear when I eventually went back to work that I couldn't cope.

"I was still quite damaged from the breakdown and effectively I had another breakdown within two months of joining another team.

"I ultimately lost my job two months after that, due to ill health."

The trial of Rachel and Nyomi Fee, Liam's mother and her partner, who were convicted of his murder last year, heard childminder Ms Farmer was not the only person to raise concerns with social services about Liam.

Nursery manager Kimberly Trail told the trial she phoned the department in June 2013, to raise concerns about Liam's injuries and the fact he seemed afraid to go home with his mother.

image copyrightPA
image captionRachel Fee and her partner Nyomi had tortured and neglected Liam and two other children

And a woman who lived near Liam's home also phoned the child protection team in September, after seeing the toddler lying unresponsive in his buggy with a blanket over his head.

Ms Bate said: "There were opportunities that must have been missed."

She added: "I'm very sad, obviously, that Liam Fee died. For any child to die in those circumstances is horrible.

"And to have had any part in that, it's a horrible feeling. But I don't think the blame lies with me. I don't think the blame lies entirely with social work.

"At the end of the day, the parents killed that child. Someone should have been visiting them, taking over from where I left off."

Ms Bate was later struck off the social work register by the regulator, the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC).

She was found guilty of misconduct and the SSSC upheld 12 charges against her involving Liam and 14 other children.

The panel found that in some cases her failings amounted to neglect.

As well as barring Ms Bate from social care work, the SSSC said "systemic failures" at Fife Council were partly to blame for the "pattern of misconduct that developed".

The committee described other social workers, including Ms Bate's boss in the council's child protection team, Karen Pedder, as "defensive" and "evasive" when they gave evidence to the hearing.

They were said to be "less reliable than might reasonably have been expected".

Ms Bate said it was unfair that no-one else from Fife Council had faced disciplinary action over failings in Liam's case.

She said: "They seem to have made much of my involvement with Liam, albeit that it was a year before he died.

"All the blame seems to have been placed on me and nobody else has been held accountable.

"It was easy to scapegoat me because I'd left - saves blaming somebody that's still there doing a job."

'Brief contact'

Fife Council chief executive Steve Grimmond said: "As a responsible employer, we would never discuss the individual circumstances of any current or former employees.

"Every effort is made to support staff in their jobs and the council works hard to help those who are experiencing difficulties.

"This case does not reflect the high standard of professionalism which we expect and receive from our social work staff.

"A link has been made with this worker and the death of Liam Fee through the media - not by the council.

"While there was some brief contact with Liam, we can confirm that this worker was not involved with Liam in the period leading up to his death."

Manager of the Scottish Association of Social Work, Trisha Hall, believed there had been "significant improvements" following the three child deaths in 2014.

She told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme: "I have spoken to some of our members in Fife who commented only yesterday to me that they feel they are working now in a better environment then maybe had been the case before.

"We did some work with a group of Fife workers very recently in partnership with the University of Edinburgh in a project called 'Re-visiting Child Protection'.

"The reality is the majority of social workers work with quite a large caseload still, they're under great demand and there is not much time for reflective practice - it is a public health issue as quite a number of people, far more senior than me, have commented on in the past."

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