A vulnerable woman who was found starving, beatenand forced to work as a slave was returned to her suspected trafficker in a major blunder by council officials, the Standard has learned.
Tortured slave left at mercy of her cruel trafficker
The woman, who had learning disabilities, was discovered by chance, filthy and freezing and apparently living in a garden shed, when bailiffs raided a house in east London.
Neighbours later said they had seen her showering naked in the garden and being forced to unload scrap metal from vans, but they had been too frightened to alert the police.
Barking and Dagenham council bosses arranged for the woman, who is in her thirties, to be accompanied by her stepfather when she was returned to Romania in December 2016, despite him having been apparently involved in her trafficking and abuse.
After fast-tracking the flights from Luton Airport , one official was apparently heard to joke: “This is good, Brexit works.”
The woman’s removal — which enraged frontline staff concerned for her welfare — breached national guidelines allowing her more time to recover in safe accommodation after being accepted as a victim of modern slavery .
Social workers in Romania say the pair have been missing since April last year. After a “shocked” health worker turned whistleblower, a report was commissioned by Barkingand Dagenham Safeguarding Adults Board. It said she had probably been forced back into slavery, and criticised “significant failures” in the way the council handled the case. It added: “Ultimately, services failed to ensure her protection and this should never be allowed to happen again.”
Commentary: shocking case shows fight against slavery is far from over
Martin Bentham, Home Affairs Editor
ALMOST every aspect of the way in which this vulnerable woman was treated by the authorities is horrifying and will raise concerns that — despite the progress that has been made since the Modern Slavery Act was introduced in 2015 — there is much to be done to ensure that victims are properly protected.
In this case, the police’s failure to treat the woman’s stepfather as a suspect, despite evidence suggesting that he had been involved in her mistreatment, is among the glaring errors.
So too is the failure of Barking and Dagenham council officials to respond to her gestures indicating that she had been abused and their willingness, instead, to facilitate her return to Romania despite the obvious risk that further enslavement there might follow.
None of these mistakes will have been intentional, of course, but they display a level of ignorance about how the nature of modern slavery — and how those subjected to it might react — that should ring alarm bells.
In particular, it seems that those responsible for helping this woman, who suffered from learning difficulties and lacked mental capacity, did not recognise that her severe impairment was likely to make her incapable of judging best her own interests.
Nor does it appear that there was a recognition that those subjected to slavery can often remain under the influence of their abusers — and sometimes even be unaware that they are victims — to such an extent that, as in this case, they might be willing to stay with them.
Campaigners have warned that similar ignorance has hindered the protection of other slavery victims in other cases too, suggesting that more training and awareness-raising about the true nature of the problem is essential.
That point applies to the other major failure in the Barking and Dagenham case: the return home of the woman before the end of the 45-day period which is meant to be given to suspected slavery victims to assist their recovery and help to establish the facts.
Charities argue, with some justification, that this is already too short a time so the decision to help her departure while the investigation was still continuing is particularly disturbing and will, again, raise concerns that similar failings could be occurring elsewhere.
This distressing case should act as a warning that the fight to ensure slavery victims are safeguarded properly has yet to be won.
The case has come to light as the Standard continues its campaign, Slaves On Our Streets, to highlight the scourge of modern slavery.
The woman first came to the attention of the authorities in November 2016 when she was spotted by bailiffs sheltering under a mattress in the garden of the east London property. She smelled of excrement and appeared to have been kept as a slave.
The bailiffs called police but the woman was bundled into a van at knifepoint before officers arrived.
She was later traced to another property in east London several miles away, at which time she was taken into care.
Her stepfather and two Romanian youths found at the second property were held on suspicion of false imprisonment, but the police investigation was dropped less than two months later.
The report said police failed to treat the stepfather as a suspect, despite his apparent involvement in removing her from the first house and her indicating that he hit her while drunk. “Scarring, suggesting burns” were found on her leg and thighs but police and council staff “appear not to have acted on this evidence of possible physical abuse”, the report found.
Brian Parrott, chairman of Barking and Dagenham Safeguarding Adults Board, said the case exposed “unexpected levels of ignorance and inappropriate actions” by police and council staff.
An interpreter who spoke the woman’s Roma dialect could not be found and the people she accused of abusing her, including her stepfather, were allowed to take part in interviews with her that were conducted by social services.
“[She] used gestures to describe how she had been beaten, locked in a room and deprived of food and water,” the report states. “Her stepfather stated that she should not be listened to due to her disability.
“It is now known that there was not an effective police investigation carried out and the stepfather who was a potential suspect was never spoken to either as a witness or a suspect.”
At a meeting of the council’s health and wellbeing board this month, Mr Parrott said an “action plan” had been put in place since the report was published in February.
“No one comes out of this well and we must ensure nothing like this happens again,” he said.
A police spokeswoman said officers had received extra training to identify slavery cases, adding: “We have invested in a dedicated team, the Modern Slavery and Kidnap Unit, to target offenders as well as supporting colleagues with investigations.”
Barking and Dagenham said it was committed “to raising the profile of issues relating to modern slavery, and to ensuring systems and staff training [are] in place to ensure such practice does not arise in future”.
The Home Office estimates that there could be up to 13,000 victims of slavery in Britain. However, charities such as the Walk Free Foundation have argued that the figure is far higher as many cases go unnoticed and unreported.