The head of Birmingham’s new Children’s Trust allegedly failed to tackle concerns that a 13-year-old girl was being abused by a grooming gang in another city.
Andy Couldrick was running children’s social care at Oxfordshire County Council when ex-detective Dermot Norridge first alerted authorities about the youngster being sexually exploited.
The former child abuse unit officer claims he spoke directly on the phone to the council chief, urging immediate action to protect the girl, as well as sending emails to him and other senior officials.
But instead of swift intervention from social services or police, the housing officer was later ordered to STOP sending the emails after a complaint was made to his bosses at Oxford City Council.
His sexual exploitation warnings in 2007 were later revealed in a serious case review of the failings of the county council and police in the grooming gangs scandal, which may have seen 370 children abused.
Seven men were jailed in 2013 for sickening crimes against multiple victims, including 25 attacks on the girl Mr Norridge had been trying to protect.
Although the Serious Case Review concluded in March 2015 that no individual could be blamed for the failings, it admitted there had been failings in the way Mr Norridge’s concerns were dealt with.
“A City Crime and Neighbourhood Nuisance Officer was hugely concerned about a particular child and escalated (his concerns) to senior staff in other agencies, but not within his own,” the review confirmed.
“The Nuisance Officer was a former Detective Sergeant and acting Detective Inspector with experience in child protection sections of the Police. In 2007-8, he repeatedly raised concerns with senior CSC and Police staff, including the then Director of Children’s Services, about a particular child.
His warnings, said the review, were “describing her behaviour and associates which today would lead to a speedy recognition that something bigger might be happening, but which at the time led to rather harsh disregard and criticism.”
In one instance, it added, “one CSC response to concerns about sexual association with adults said: “The innuendo relating to her alleged associates I find a little presumptive and unsavoury, and does not in my view indicate a significant prima facie risk of harm.
“Another email said that ‘the evidence beyond innuendo remains thin’. By this point there were numerous reports collated by the Nuisance Officer of association by the then 14-year-old, late at night, with adult men.”
“The County’s Head of Adult Social Services was asked by the CSC Head of Service, through his contacts with the City, to complain about the Nuisance Officer’s emails and style, and the City senior manager apologised for ‘the attitude of the staff member and for the unprofessional way he has acted. I am most upset that an officer under my control could act in this matter, and apologise to your staff unreservedly. Please be assured I have taken strong action to ensure this does not happen again.’
“The worker was asked to stop emailing, but not told that his concerns were inappropriate. It is likely though that his managers assumed that the Police and CSC would be doing the right thing as it was their responsibility, and so did not take up the issues themselves.
“Whatever the style of the Nuisance Officer concerned, he was trying to get a child protected, and responses received (including turning down a case conference request) show one reason why the full picture of CSE was delayed.”
Mr Couldrick issued a statement at that time, saying the report did “not paint a picture of the concerns raised in 2007 that I recognise entirely. The concerns were not ignored, but different decisions were taken.
“At this time, the periods she was missing were becoming less frequent. This led to us continuing with what turned out to be the wrong approach. We did not understand this type of abuse and its scale at that time, and were focused on individual young people.
“Like everyone else, I deeply regret that we didn’t have the correct information to enable us to see the patterns and the whole picture during this period. If we had, we could have done something about it and stopped it then and there.
“What happened in Oxfordshire was harrowing for the young victims. I’ve always been, and will continue to be, committed to protecting children from harm in order to help our most vulnerable.”
Mr Couldrick left Oxfordshire County Council in 2011 to become Wokingham Borough Council’s chief executive. He was appointed chief executive of Birmingham Children’s Trust in May last year, a position which pays a salary of up to £157,000 a year.
The Trust was set up to run Birmingham’s failing Children’s Services, which has consistently been branded inadequate by Ofsted.
As part of his role, Mr Couldrick will be responsible for overseeing the protection of vulnerable children, including those at risk of child sexual exploitation (CSE).
“She went into a children’s home but ended up being targeted by the same gang of Asian males who were targeting other girls there"
DERMOT Norridge raised fears about the safety of the girl while working as a nuisance officer at the A2 Dominion housing association, employed by the city council.
“Two tenants were complaining about a young girl and her relative making a lot of noise, of unruly behaviour – anti-social behaviour,” he said. “The girl was going out at night and coming back very late, and picked up by men in cars.
“I started submitting information about it to Oxford City Council via Thames Valley Police, and then to Oxford County Council, which ran the social services department for children. I explained that this 13-year-old girl was behaving in a way she shouldn’t, that I believed she was being subjected to child sexual exploitation, that she was going out and coming back at all times of night with different men.”
Mr Norridge claims he sent numerous emails to senior managers at the city council and senior Children’s Services’ managers, including Andy Couldrick.
“Nobody listened to what I was saying,” he claimed. “In the end, I emailed any senior manager connected to Children’s Services but all of them referred me back to Andy Couldrick because he was in charge.
“Then a complaint was made to Oxford City Council about my emails. Basically, the writing was on the wall for me then, I was told I had to stop doing what I was doing or I’d be out my job. In the end I got fed up with Oxford City Council and left the job.”
He later learned what had happened to the schoolgirl – and the abuse she had suffered.
“She was put on the Child Protection Register but when she went to live with another relative, she was taken off the register,” claimed Mr Norridge.
“She went into a children’s home but ended up being targeted by the same gang of Asian males who were targeting other girls there. I didn’t know this, I only found out afterwards, via the review.”
Seven men were jailed in 2013 for abusing six girls in Oxford between 2004 and 2012, including the 13-year-old.
Thames Valley Police and Oxfordshire County Council were later accused of making “many errors” and faced criticism that they could have acted sooner. The subsequent review revealed that up to 373 children may have been targeted by gangs over 16 years.
As well as sending emails, Mr Norridge claimed he had one telephone conversation with Mr Couldrick.
“I think I’d use the word impervious to describe how he was with me; impossible to get through to,” he said. “I had wanted them to put this girl into a secure placement at a home. Andy Couldrick’s attitude was that was draconian.
“One of the criticisms that Oxford County Council had was the language I used in my emails. I didn’t hold back in the end, I was a bit pushy. They were pressing emails but I was never rude and never swore.
“I was so frustrated by the lack of action over this girl that at one point I marched in to see the director of social services. I saw an assistant and told him how frustrated I was that nothing was being done. And then nothing was done.
“Afterwards, I received an apology from Oxfordshire County Council and Oxford City Council. They recognised that they missed something and they should have been more supportive of getting things done.”
WHAT THE COUNCIL SAYS
BIRMINGHAM City Council issued a statement to the Birmingham Mail, which read:
We were aware at the time of Andy Couldrick’s appointment that allegations had been made about his time working within Oxfordshire.
Andy was very open about these allegations when he applied for this post. Before his appointment we took this into consideration. The authority was confident that, having reviewed the available documentation, along with the Department for Education and senior officers:
* The Oxfordshire Serious Case Review made it clear that no individual could be blamed for what happened to the young women affected, apart from those who enacted the abuse
* An independent review of Leadership and Governance commissioned in Wokingham after allegations were made, published and highlighted strong corporate governance and leadership, a pace for change and drive for improvement and active and ongoing work around CSE issues by Andy Couldrick in Wokingham.
We remain confident that Andy, working with members, officers and partners, will continue to provide the strong leadership and clear direction that the Trust needs.