I was going to write an uplifting blog in celebration of Foster Care Fortnight, which takes place this month. But it is so difficult to be cheerful and optimistic about safeguarding children when the news is dominated by the murder of an infant at the hands of the woman entrusted with her care. Keegan Downer was just 18 months old when she died and had been in care all her short life. She had 200 separate injuries, including seven recently broken ribs and 153 scars on her little body, including her face and neck. She had broken legs and sever head and spine injuries. Kandyce Downer, Keegan's legal guardian, has been jailed for life for her murder.
A Serious Case Review is underway, which will tell us more about how this was allowed to happen and what can be done to reduce the risk of it ever happening again. The case has made headlines, rightly, for its sheer brutality, as well as the profound questions it raises about child protection.
Most of the media coverage, with the honourable exception of the BBC and the Guardian, described Kandyce Downer as a foster carer, which she was not. It feels so petty to grumble about this when a child has been the victim of such inhumanity while living in a neighbourhood much like yours and mine. But it does matter, deeply. In the aftermath of the murder trial social media has been full of abuse directed at foster carers - "paid to kill" sums up the general mood. The case has reinforced the prejudice of many, that foster carers are part of a failed system, motivated by money and subject to the ineffective scrutiny of uncaring social workers.
So it is important to repeat that Kandyce Downer was not a foster carer. She was appointed legal guardian, via a Special Guardianship Order, as a member of Keegan's extended family. We must await the outcome of the Serious Case Review to understand more about how this took place. But we know enough from the murder trial to suspect that Downer would not have been approved as a foster carer. She was already responsible for four children of her own, the eldest of whom appears to have been responsible for caring for his siblings. This allowed Downer to be a full-time business student. Had she overcome these significant hurdles to become a foster carer, Downer would have been subjected to scrutiny, including regular contact with social workers and health visitors, and Keegan would probably have maintained contact with other members of her birth family.
In fact, the one person who showed Keegan the love and care that she was denied by others was her actual foster carer. In the telling of this grim story, the dedication and commitment of Jane Murray has been lost. She cared for Keegan for the first 10 months of her life, from the moment she was removed from her drug addict mother soon after birth. She cared for this baby as one of her own, possibly nursing her through the brutal impact of foetal addiction. From Ms Murray's victim impact statement her love for Keegan, who she knew as Shi-Anne, is clear. She too has suffered a grievous loss, and is left forever with doubts about why she let her go. She raised concerns about Downer's suitability as a legal guardian, but to no avail.
So yes, it matters that Kandyce Downer should not be identified as a foster carer. It matters, enormously, to all those foster families who provide loving homes to our most vulnerable children, and who struggle daily to ensure that they can go on to enjoy fulfilling lives. As foster carers, pillars of a system that let Keegan down so tragically, we feel her loss too, and no small amount of shame, by association. All we can do is redouble our efforts to protect and nurture the children who are in our care. And we shall hug them a little closer to let them know how much we love them.