18 Oct 2022

Social workers fearful of man but allowed him to move in with mum, children

7:36 pm on 18 October 2022
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The focus at the Coroner's Court hearing is on the interactions between the hospitals, police, Oranga Tamariki and Corrections. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

An inquest has heard a repeat violent offender was so dangerous social workers refused to interview him at their offices, but then rapidly approved him to live with a woman and her two young children.

A few weeks later in October 2015 the woman's son, a toddler, was found dead at his home.

The man was charged with murder but was found later dead in custody.

The man had a long criminal history and was forbidden to see his own children.

Child, Youth and Family (CYFs) - now Oranga Tamariki - knew this, the inquest in Wellington was told this week.

However, after a social worker interviewed the man three times, CYFs then recommended to a judge that the man's bail be varied to let him live at the house with children who were not his.

Coroner Marcus Elliott is hearing evidence about how the man came to be alone with the boy, who had been in hospital before with multiple injuries.

The focus is on the interactions between the hospitals, police, Oranga Tamariki and Corrections.

The man's bail was varied in early October 2015, and within days the boy was dead.

The social worker's first interview was "quite disturbing", the man's probation officer told the coroner.

The officer had sat in on the interview, for safety's sake, in September 2015. The social worker seemed to put words in the man's mouth, he said.

"I just shook my head" when he heard of CYF's recommendation to vary bail, he said.

"I had real concerns and did not think [the man] should be in the community at all."

The interviews took place at the Probation Services offices at CYF's request.

"CYFs said he was too dangerous to be interviewed at their building," the probation officer said.

"He was a danger to the staff at CYFs - which is unheard of."

Earlier, a police officer told the inquest that police did not know the man had unsupervised contact with the toddler, and better information sharing about that would have led to "a major red flag".

The man's probation officer told the inquest the offender was one of the most difficult people he had ever dealt with, an "angry man" who would "blow up" quickly.

Corrections' own system classified him as "medium" risk.

He was both on bail, and on Corrections' release conditions, when released from custody in mid-June 2015.

A judge had earlier asked CYFs for a report on whether to vary his bail. Such a request was unusual and a more experienced judge was unlikely to have taken this approach, the probation officer said.

Instead, Corrections, not CYFs (now OT), had a statutory duty to assess the risks for the court around electronic bail, or variations to it, the inquest heard.

Both CYFs and Corrections already knew the man's risk and history, the probation officer said. He conceded he could have done more to raise his concerns.

'Continuous threats and arguments' with ex-partner

CYFs information about the man's own children was that there had been "continuous threats and arguments" between the man and their mother for years, and that both parents subjected the children to "emotional abuse".

The man told his children he would kill their mother in front of them if he had to, the inquest heard.

It was "not safe for the children in either adult's care", CYF's information said, the probation officer told the inquest.

CYFs knew this at the time the social worker interviewed the man three times in September 2015.

The probation officer, who sat in on two of these, wrote in notes about the first interview: The social worker "did not listen very well, put words in his mouth, wrote stuff down that had not been said".

"I found this quite disturbing."

The officer was unable to provide the inquest with specifics about what "words" he meant, and did not see what the social worker wrote. The social worker knew he thought the man posed a risk, he said.

The probation officer agreed he did not take enough notes, and had changed his practice since.

The judge who was waiting for CYFs to report back - a report that was delayed "weeks and weeks" - had expressed frustration at the lack of information sharing generally between agencies such as Corrections and CYFs, a lawyer told the inquest.

Following the September CYFs interviews, the social worker's report referred to the lead probation officer as having "no concerns", and finding the man "exemplary".

The officer told the inquest this was not correct.

"I did not think he should be going to live with children who were not already his."

A second probation officer told the inquest that CYFs had raised no safety or welfare concerns when she was doing two reports for the court on electronic bail for the man. If it had "without a shadow of a doubt" her report would have been different, the officer said.

The inquest has heard repeatedly from police and Corrections witnesses that they did not have a written record, or not a full one, of what went on.

Much of the evidence is turning on who told who what and when, about the man, and the boy's family.

The man had previous convictions.

He "showed propensity to offend while on bail" - he had over 30 convictions while on bail - and was a risk to the public, the second probation officer's reports to the court said, the officer told the inquest.

Nevertheless, he was released from custody on electronic bail in June 2015, to an address with another woman who had a child under 16, on condition he was not to be alone with any child under 16.

A variation to his bail in October 2015 allowed him to move to live with his partner and her children.

A few days later the boy was found dead in his bed. He had crushed vertebrae. The previous day he had been alone with the man.

The first part of the inquest a year ago found it was probable the man intentionally inflicted the injuries that caused the boy's death.