Social Affairs Correspondent
Appalling failures in Britain's child protection system were exposed today as a couple was sentenced to a total of 22 years for "scalping and kicking like a football" their four-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy.
The case had echoes of the Victoria Climbié tragedy, with a judge expressing "anxieties" about social services.
Samuel Duncan, 26, was given 10-and-a-half-years and Kimberley Harte, 23, 11-and-a-half-years, after "revolting abuse" in which boiling liquid was poured over the child's hands, her hair was ripped out, she was repeatedly kicked in the groin and forced to sleep naked in a locked toilet.
The attacks happened only weeks after the girl was returned from foster care to the couple by Westminster social services last year.
No social workers have been disciplined despite the fact the girl's family was visited or contacted 20 times, Westminster Council confirmed this evening. "The council's view is that no disciplinary action should be taken," said a spokesman.
Sentencing the couple, Judge Paul Worsley QC voiced concern about failings by social services, in particular the near fatal decision to return the child to her parents against the wishes of her foster carers.
He said the parents, who showed no remorse for what they had done, tortured a "loving and affectionate" child in a case made all the worse by the fact they knew they were "under the eye of social services and had every reason to show more, not less, affection to that little girl".
Her physical scars may heal in time, he said, "but I doubt the mental scars ever will". The case comes four years after the most extensive inquiry - costing £3.8m - into the failings of the child protection system in British history, prompted by Victoria Climbié's death at the hands of her great aunt and the woman's boyfriend.
Lord Laming, who chaired that inquiry, pledged that Victoria's suffering would mark an "enduring turning point in ensuring proper protection of children in this country".
In the case of Duncan and Harte, a court heard how social workers and doctors had accepted an explanation of how the four-year-old broke her arm weeks before she was finally admitted to hospital with her appalling injuries. By then she was in so much pain she had to be examined under anaesthetic.
When the child, who cannot be named, was taken in by foster carers they referred to her as a "sunny child" who was physically capable despite her disability. Following the abuse she was left physically incapable of walking.
Westminster Council, which prides itself on being a flagship council delivering efficient services, insisted the case was "not another Victoria Climbié case".
Julie Jones, chair of the Westminster Local Safeguarding Children Board, said this evening: "It is clear that those staff who saw this child and her family could not have foreseen the injuries she sustained.
"After the child was returned home there were at least 20 visits from health and social care professionals.
"The information sharing between agencies was very good as all parties were mindful that this was a very complicated situation."
But a "serious case review" by the authority's Local Safeguarding Children Board pointed out numerous, serious failings by professionals who were "too parent focused" and not sceptical enough of what they were being told by the parents.
"For example, during a two month period, there were five occasions when the child was said to be 'out with her father', when a professional made a home visit. Furthermore, only minimal contact was made with the father at this crucial time," it said.
Tragically, the foster carers were the only strong voices against the child returning to her parents. They spoke of "regular distress" exhibited by the child before and after contact sessions.
Professionals were "generally observing quite a different and more positive picture from within assessment or contact sessions, and it was these views that prevailed".
It emerged that there was a nine day period when parents persistently evaded contact despite repeated attempts by social services to get in touch, during which time the girl was being hideously treated. Asked why social services did not contact the police, Westminster Council said: "You can't get police involved on a suspicion."
The girl had been in care because of domestic violence between her parents. Her "agony" came to an end only when her horrified grandmother discovered what was going on and called the police.
The couple of Maida Vale, west London, first admitted three counts of child cruelty on the basis they failed to seek medical treatment for their daughter. Then, following a cut-throat defence during which they blamed each other, they were convicted of three charges of causing grievous bodily harm with intent between February 1 and March 18 this year.
The case is the latest in a string of cases that have caused questions to be asked about social services' decisions.
In 2005, Ukleigha Batten-Froggatt, a six-year-old who was on the 'at risk' register, was strangled by her mother's boyfriend in their flat in north London. In 2003 Toni-Ann Byfield was shot in north-west London while in the care of Birmingham social services.
Referring to today's case, police said they had never seen such shocking injuries. "These were horrific injuries," said Detective Sergeant Tony Smith from the child protection unit, "some of the worst injuries I have seen."
Her ordeal had caused her to regress with regards to her disability, but, according to Detective Sergeant Smith, she is now doing far better.
"When I met the young girl she was in a terrible condition. But I'm now happy to report that she's improved dramatically with the care that she's now receiving."
Mor Dioum, director of the Victoria Climbié Foundation, said workers should have been alarmed when they were told the girl was not at home during visits, adding: "It is well known that abusers tend to hide their victims from the public."
But Ron Lock, author of the independent case review, said: "It is quite contrary to the Victoria Climbié case in that risks were clearly identified and believed to have been addressed to a level that it was safe to return the children to the care of their parents.
"Victoria Climbié had many injuries that professionals failed to identify and investigate properly, which left her in a situation that led to her tragic death.
"Fortunately this child is alive and well. The extent of physical abuse that occurred was not something that was predictable or that the professionals had evidence of. However one incident of a fractured arm was wrongly accepted as being the result of an accident."
Defence counsel Philippa Page, for Duncan, said her client was still denying attacking his daughter. Nevertheless, the once would-be footballer, who was deserted by his father as a child, was someone who could learn from his mistakes and one day feel remorse.
Harte's barrister, Jennifer Edwards, said the mother - who had also had an "appalling" upbringing - would "never stop blaming herself, feeling pain for losing her child and for the fact her future as a mother will always be in question. "At times this young woman is almost overwhelmed and crushed by her sense of guilt," she added.