Revealed: The Woman at the Top in the Worst Two Child Abuse Cases; after a Tribunal Yesterday Slated Social Services Management, We Examine the Controversial Record of Care Supremo Mary Richardson

Article excerpt

Byline: JOHN ARLIDGE

LINED with plane trees and expensive cars, the road of Edwardian terrace homes in Crouch End is a model of middle-class respectability. A world away from the housing estates of Haringey where eight-year-old Victoria Climbie died after suffering horrific abuse, it is one of the last places that you would expect to find the person now being blamed for two of London's most high-profile child abuse tragedies.

But it has become the focus of the latest investigation into one of the darkest chapters of childcare in London.

This leafy street is where Mary Richardson lives. She was Social Services Director in Haringey at the time when Victoria Climbie died of hypothermia and neglect after being tied up in a bin liner and left in a bath. Richardson is now head of Social Services in Hackney and her conduct is being called into question following a disturbing Old Bailey trial that revealed the horrifying abuse of another young African girl who her carers claimed was a witch.

Richardson, 52, found herself at the centre of a growing storm yesterday when the ban preventing Lisa Arthurworrey, the inexperienced and overworked social worker responsible for Climbie, from working with children was overturned by the Care Standards Tribunal.

After the ruling, Arthurworrey - swiftly followed by Francis and Berthe Climbie, Victoria's parents - publicly blamed Richardson for Climbie's " avoidable" death.

Arthurworrey said: "I have acknowledged my failings and my responsibility.

It is time for Richardson to be held accountable for hers." Francis and Berthe Climbie declared: "The buck stops with Mary Richardson."

They are angry that Richardson had left Haringey without sanction and had taken up her new [pounds sterling]100,000a-year post in Hackney just one month after their daughter's death. Climbie's great-aunt, Marie-Therese Kouao, and her partner, Carl John Manning, were convicted of Victoria's murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001.

An Evening Standard investigation has revealed serious concerns surrounding her conduct in Haringey and Hackney.

Senior social workers and care professionals allege that while at Haringey she endangered vulnerable youngsters by cutting by half the number of senior social workers.

Her move led to poor supervision of junior members of staff, it is claimed, and a massive increase in case loads for frontline staff. Her management style was also condemned as aloof and arrogant. Now she is the subject of similar bitter criticism in Hackney.

Mary Richardson has not been at her desk in Hackney Council since last December when she was signed off work on her full salary on the grounds of illhealth. Hackney Council yesterday refused to divulge the nature of her illness, and yesterday Richardson refused to comment on the allegations - as did both Hackney and Haringey councils.

No one doubts that being head of social services in two of London's most difficult boroughs is anything but challenging.

There are some senior social work professionals who would not countenance taking-such jobs. Mary Richardson has had long experience of social work in north London and, under her, both Haringey and Hackney Social Services have, at one time or another, received glowing appraisals from official investigators.

However, as director of key frontline services, she also, of course, has ultimate responsibility when things go wrong. Can it be merely a coincidence that the same senior executive could have been in charge of social service departments in two inner London boroughs that have been convulsed by such cases as Climbie and Child B, the "witchcraft" girl?

Mary Richardson, it has emerged this week, has many critics who blame her for failings in Haringey and Hackney.

"She was the absent head of a rudderless ship," said Arthurworrey yesterday.

"She was totally removed from what was going on in Haringey. …