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THOMAS BRANCHFLOWER: Inquest hears child drowned during foster care

THOMAS BRANCHFLOWER: Inquest hears child drowned during foster care

Thomas Alan Branchflower, Who Died On August 1. CREDIT: Sheridan Farrow

A Somerset child drowned in the back garden of his foster home after being left unsupervised, an inquest has heard.

Thomas Alan Branchflower was found in the garden of his foster home in Williton on July 27, 2020, and was rushed to hospital after being treated by paramedics, where he passed away on August 1 aged just 16 months.

An inquest into his death concluded on Thursday (December 16), with senior Somerset coroner Tony Williams noting that Thomas had been left unsupervised and the trough into which he fell had not been flagged up by social workers when they assessed the property.

Somerset County Council said it had reviewed its fostering policies since the infant’s tragic death and had passed on recommendations to national fostering bodies.

The inquest heard how Thomas, who was born in Taunton on March 11, 2019, had been diagnosed with a genetic mutation which caused “marked development delay and visual impairment”.

He was taken into care and foster at the home in Williton.

Health assessments carried out in January 2020 indicated that Thomas’ development was “significantly delayed for his age”, noting that he had started crawling but had “just started to sit unsupported for one minute”.

In a statement read aloud during the proceedings, Thomas’ foster mother recalled that she had taken Thomas out for a walk in his pushchair on the day in question, arriving back at the property at around 4.30pm.

She parked the pushchair near the greenhouse in the back garden.

She took Thomas out of the pushchair, put him down on the ground and went back into the house to answer some emails.

The inquest heard Thomas was unsupervised for a period of time.

Just after 5pm, the foster mother went out into the garden and found Thomas “face down” in a trough of water, stating he was “white, cold and wet”.

Taking Thomas back into the house, she performed rescue breaths and rang 999.

She said in her statement: “I was just desperate for the baby to live.

“We had said previously: ‘We need to get that trough emptied”. That’s the regret that keeps me awake at night.

“If I’d been in the kitchen, I’d have been able to see him out of the window.

“We were really proud of Thomas. He had a strange ability to make people go really gooey – we called it the Thomas effect.

“When he first arrived he couldn’t keep his head up. He learned to eat and he had joy in him. He exuded joy – he was cute and loving.”

Two double-crewed ambulances attended the scene, along with a rapid response vehicle and the Helimed air ambulance service, in what was described as “an appropriate and rapid response”.

Thomas was taken by road ambulance to Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton and was subsequently transferred to Bristol Children’s Hospital.

While he initially started to respond to antibiotics, CT scans showed that he had sustained a hypoxic brain injury and passed away on August 1, 2020.

An independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Thomas’ death revealed that social workers’ assessments had not identified the trough as a potential threat to the child’s safety.

Investigator Trish Lyons, who worked for the council for 18 years until her retirement in 2019, told the inquest that all potential foster carers have their homes assessed, with social workers visiting the property and carers undergoing at least 12 hours of training – including two hours on health and safety.

She said social workers had visited the house eight times to make assessments, including a health and safety assessment on December 13, 2018, long before Thomas was placed in the fostering system.

While social workers were trained to spot risks relating to “water features, streams, hot tubs and swimming pools”, the trough in the foster mum’s back garden was “not identified” as a threat – since it was only filled with water during the summer months, and the assessment of her property took place in the winter.

Social workers had “a lot of ongoing contact” with the foster parents both before and during the pandemic.

During one visit on February 6, 2020, a social worker stated that Thomas “requires more than good care and he cannot be left alone other than when asleep”.

On May 7, 2020, an annual review meeting was held via videolink to cast “a fresh pair of eyes” on Thomas’ case, with the parties noting a health and safety check was needed and agreeing a virtual tour of the property would be carried out within a month.

Ms Lyons admitted there were “omissions in the oversight of the suitability of the home” due to both staffing changes and coronavirus restrictions.

She said there were also “avoidable lapses in implementation of established procedures” relating to Thomas’ health and safety.

Since Thomas’ death, the council has reviewed its fostering procedures, ensuring “less common water hazards” are included in assessments.

Giving a narrative conclusion, Mr Williams confirmed the cause of death as hypoxic ischaemic brain injury secondary to drowning.

He said: “The lady and Thomas had gone for a walk. She came back from the walk, and Thomas was placed into the back garden.

“For a period of time he was left unsupervised, and during that period of time his increased mobility enabled him to make his way to that water trough, and he fell into that water trough.

“I’m left with two facts: Thomas was not supervised at the time of the incident, and the water trough had not been identified as a potential hazard.

“I feel that my conclusion should reflect that. I don’t feel it would do justice to just refer to this as being an accident, though no-one intended for it to happen.

“The council has been accepting of the recommendations and has acted on them to prevent this from happening to another family.

“Locally, the documentation has already been changed, and this has been fed back nationally to the organisations which produce this documentation.”

Words: Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter


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