Four children, aged between three and eight, who died in a house fire had been so neglected they could barely talk and were found with more than 50 injuries, a review has found.
Eight-year-old Riley Holt and siblings Olly, Tilly, and Keegan Unitt, aged three, four and six, were killed in a blaze sparked when their parents fell asleep after smoking in bed.
Flames swept through their home in Highfields, Stafford, in February last year after parents Natalie Unitt and Christopher Moulton had not properly stubbed out a cigarette, a court heard.
It ignited the bedding and caused the fire to rip through the house claiming the lives of all but one of their children – their youngest son, then aged two.
Ms Unitt and Mr Moulton were subsequently arrested on suspicion of manslaughter but prosecutors later dropped the charge due to insufficient evidence.
A serious case review into the fire has said the children suffered ‘significant harm as a result of neglect’, with the report revealing how they could barely communicate and had been seen with bruises in the run-up to their deaths.
Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Safeguarding Children Board also concluded the actions of social care services ‘fell short’ after the family were brought to the council’s attention around two years before the blaze.
Nursery staff also became concerned after they found another child had not had their nappy changed since the night before, said the report.
Over a 17-month period, more than 50 injuries, marks or bruises were found on the children.
Their parents claimed one of the bruises was just play-dough and two other marks were down to bumping into a sofa.
The report revealed that during an appointment with a paediatrician, one of the children simply ‘grunted and pointed at things’.
Another had a ‘frozen expression’ and did not respond to a social worker.
Review author Joanna Nicolas said: ‘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.’
The children, who also had signs of development delay, were referred for speech and language therapy.
Ms Nichols said there was ‘considerable evidence’ the children did not get ‘sufficient stimulation, supervision or guidance’, with one of them left in front of the TV in their pushchair.
The family first came to the attention of Staffordshire County Council in 2017 and a child protection plan was later put in place – but little progress was made, said review.
But the children were considered at the ‘lower end’ of neglect cases because neither parent displayed ‘high-risk indicators’, such as mental health or substance abuse problems.
The mother was ‘controlling the relationships the entire family’ had with agencies, who were just believing ‘the mother’s word’ despite the children living in ‘utter chaos’, said the report.
Ms Nicolas said the tragedy highlighted the need to treat child neglect as being just as damaging as physical or sexual abuse.
However, the report praises the efforts of health professionals who ‘chivvied and chased’ to try to get the family to attend appointments.
Acting chairman of the safeguarding board, Helen Riley, said: ‘While the tragic nature of these deaths could not have been predicted, there are certainly areas of practice around the family that can be improved.’
An inquest into the children’s death in November heard the home was littered with cigarette butts and one ashtray had even melted into the springs of the mattress.
The court was told the couple had previously been warned by social workers about smoking in the house, which has now been demolished.
In his evidence to the court, Mr Moulton said he had been woken by the fire and had tried to get to his children.
He said he could not remember how he had suffered burns to his hands before escaping from a bedroom window with their youngest child. Ms Unitt escaped through the front door.
It was heard the mother had no recollection of how the blaze began and was suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.
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