Baby Finley Boden was allowed to return to his parents who would go on to kill him in just half the time the local council wanted, with no court-enforced drug testing on the couple, new documents have revealed.
In April, Stephen Boden, 30, and Shannon Marsden, 22, were found guilty of the “savage and brutal” murder of their baby son on Christmas Day, during the winter 2020 Covid lockdown. On Friday (26 May), Boden and Marsden were sentenced to life imprisonment, with minimum jail terms of 29 and 27 years respectively.
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The Derby Crown Court heard the couple burned and beat 10-month-old Finley “in repeated acts of severe violence” in the days before his death. Prosecutor Mary Prior KC said the infant suffered a catalogue of “appalling” injuries, including 71 bruises over his body and 57 fractures, many inflicted in the short period before his death.
Now new court papers - released to the PA news agency, BBC and The Telegraph - showed Finley was returned to his parent’s full-time care despite a local authority having “some concerns” over their drug use and parenting ability.
What do the newly-released court documents say?
Finley was removed from his parents' care in February 2020, days after he was born. Social workers from Derbyshire County Council had decided to initially take Finley away from his parents because they believed he was likely to suffer "significant harm" at home. They said Marsden and Boden's home smelled of cannabis, was "very unclean", and "at times hazardous, with faeces on the floor".
The social workers also believed there was a risk of domestic violence, because Boden had a previous conviction against a former partner - and police had been called to a dispute between the pair in the past. Both parents smoked "between medium and high" levels of cannabis.
In October 2020, a family court ordered Finley Boden to be returned to Shannon Marsden and Stephen Boden’s home in Old Whittington, Chesterfield, Derbyshire, within eight weeks.
The transcript of the family court hearing shows Derbyshire County Council asked the court for Finley to be returned to his parent’s full-time care very gradually over four months, initially spending most of his time with his carers.
The other parties involved asked for an eight-week transition, followed by a supervision period. Finley's guardian - appointed by Cafcass to represent the child's best interests - supported the shorter transition period, saying Marsden and Boden had "clearly made and sustained positive changes". New photos revealed their once dirty home clean and orderly.
The court agreed, and also stopped short of ordering the parents to be regularly drug tested - despite hair tests revealing they had lied to social services about ending their cannabis use. The decision was made by two magistrates with the help of a legal adviser, the BBC said. Magistrates are volunteers - usually Justices of the Peace - who hear cases in courts in their community.
What has the reaction to the documents been?
The courts have stood by the magistrates' decision. When the High Court agreed to release these documents to the BBC, Justice Nathalie Lieven described the family court as having made a "reasonable" call. "Having read the papers here, I have every sympathy with the decision the magistrates made," she said.
A statement from Cafcass, released to the BBC, said: "It is not possible to say whether a longer transition plan would have prevented Finley's death. What led to his death was the ability of his parents to deceive everyone involved about their love for him and their desire to care for him."
But Toby Perkins, the MP for Chesterfield, said the death in his constituency was “shocking” but “unsurprising”, due to “failures across the system” in social services and the courts.
He said widespread underfunding of social services and the court system contributed to the outcome of Finley’s case, saying he has heard of high caseloads of social workers at constituency surgeries, which means another child could “slip through the net”.
Finley's case needed to be viewed in the wider context in terms of the performance of the court in relation to the demands on them, and the performance of social services as a department, in the context of the demands on them, Perkins said.
“If that tells us that social workers are dealing with two or three times more cases than they should be, it’s really unfair and unreasonable for social services bosses to then turn to individual social workers and say, ‘You got this decision wrong’, if in actual fact those very same bosses had been requiring social workers to do two or three times more work than they should reasonably have been expected to do," he continued.
“I do believe there have been failures across the system that have resulted in Finley Boden’s death, and I’m determined that a full and transparent review of all of those decisions should take place and the evidence should lead us to where the evidence should lead us in terms of who’s responsible for that.”
The Derby and Derbyshire Safeguarding Children Partnership is carrying out a serious case review into Finley’s case, the findings of which are due later this year.