Inquest raises concerns over death of Romford teenager in care

A coroner has expressed “real reservations” about the care given to a traumatised Romford 13-year-old who took his own life last year.

The inquest for George King, who died on November 1, was adjourned after information came to light at Walthamstow Coroners Court that led a local authority to reconsider his case.

George was taken into care by Hertfordshire County Council after suffering serious abuse at his mother’s home and placed with Romford foster carer Kathy Sweeney in 2018.

On March 5, east London coroner Graeme Irvine heard that, on the day he died, he confided to Ms Sweeney that he had attempted suicide before but claimed he no longer wished to do so.

Ms Sweeney resolved to seek mental health care for him the following day, before leaving him in the care of her son-in-law for a few hours. By the time she returned, he had died.

The court heard from Ms Sweeney that George was originally “very, very, shy and introverted” but “really started to blossom” once he had settled in her care.

She said: “It did take a little while but once he had settled… he was like a completely different child.”

She added that he began to call her his mother and asked if they could celebrate the day it was confirmed he would be staying with her long-term “like a new birthday”.

At around lunchtime on November 1, George admitted to her that he “felt really sad” because of “flashbacks and memories” from his childhood and that he had attempted suicide in the past.

Ms Sweeney said: “He was distressed because the memories were invading his head, he had been trying to put everything behind him but it was becoming more difficult.

“On reflection, I think that’s because he was so settled that he mentally let his guard down.”

George insisted he would not repeat the attempt but later threw an item he had used previously down the stairs, with Mr Irvine suggesting this showed he “could not trust himself not to do something again”.

Ms Sweeney had plans with her daughter that day and called her son-in-law James Embling to look after George while she was gone.

She told the court: “I did not believe he was in any danger at that time, I believed the danger had passed. After the conversation, he just seemed to be his normal self.

“I sent a text to my social worker and said I would be calling her in the morning so we could arrange some support for him.”

However, Mr Irvine told her: “I have to make it very clear I do not accept your assessment (of the danger) and I think the assessment was flawed.

“I think there were clearly ongoing problems with George and I think that meant a continuing risk that was not mitigated.”

He asked James Embling, who discovered George in his bedroom after going to check on him, whether he was given “specific instructions” about observing him while Ms Sweeney was out.

Mr Embling told the court he was aware of the day’s events but was not given specific instructions and had allowed George to be alone as his behaviour seemed normal.

Hertfordshire County Council’s head of looked after children Sarah Baker said that, though the council originally felt there was no need for a review into the death, it had decided to reconsider this.

She said: “In my opinion, there should have been a conversation about the amount of time George (could be) away from oversight.

“It’s clear in hindsight that an hour was far too long. Ideally George should have been seen more regularly than that.”

Mr Irvine therefore chose to adjourn the hearing until Hertfordshire County Council had discussed the case, adding he had “real reservations about the care that was provided”.

In addition to his concerns about November 1, he questioned if it was appropriate for George to have remained with Ms Sweeney after her husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

He suggested her husband’s death in 2019 may have “placed a shadow over the suitability” of George’s placement and questioned if this was considered by Hertfordshire County Council.

The inquest will resume later this year.

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Victoria Munro

Local Democracy Reporter