Alex Malcolm murder: inquest points to failings by probation service

Partner did not know about violent history of Marvyn Iheanacho, who beat her son to death

A jury has concluded that a five-year-old boy was unlawfully killed by his mother’s former partner, and condemned the probation service for a litany of major failings.

Alex Malcolm was beaten to death by Marvyn Iheanacho, the former partner of his mother, Liliya Breha, after the boy lost one of his trainers in a park in November 2016. Although the probation service knew about Iheanacho’s violent history and of Breha’s existence, they failed to warn her about him.

Breha was horrified at the conclusion of Iheanacho’s murder trial in July 2017 to hear for the first time that he had a string of previous convictions dating back to 1994 for violent offences against women and children.

According to the terms of Iheanacho’s licence, he was not supposed to have unsupervised access to children under 16, and probation officers were supposed to monitor any new relationships with women.

The jury in the inquest at Southwark coroner’s court found that the probation service wrongly classified Iheanacho. They also found that he was “a manipulative high-risk offender with a history of domestic violence who intimidated probation officers”.

They identified a series of failings by the probation service, and found that major changes to the service introduced in 2014, by the former justice secretary Chris Grayling, contributed to Alex’s death because the changes led to higher workloads and put significant pressure on staff. The service was understaffed, the jury concluded, leading to further pressures, and fragmented information held by different agencies did not enable effective information sharing.

Liliya Breha with her son, Alex.
Liliya Breha with her son, Alex. Photograph: Liliya Breha

A newly qualified probation officer, Hannah Evans, who was supervising Iheanacho, told the inquest: “Frankly, I was afraid of him. I think I was not sufficiently robust in challenging his behaviour.”

At the conclusion of the inquest, the coroner, Andrew Harris, said he would be making a “prevention of future deaths” report focusing on the shortage of approved premises into which violent offenders like Iheanacho could be released from prison, failings in the multi-agency provisions, and difficulties of recruitment and retention in the probation service.

Breha welcomed the jury’s conclusions. Speaking after the inquest, she said: “I have spent months and years trying to get to this point to understand why I was never told about Marvyn’s previous convictions. The inquest has exposed the dreadful and horrible failures of probation in the supervision of the man who killed my son, not only on an individual level but also in the systems that were operated.

“I have heard harrowing evidence in the inquest which went beyond my imagination. I hope that Alex’s memory can continue to help others and prevent something as horrible as this from happening again.”

Breha has received help from Victim Support and is training to be a worker for the charity.

“I meet other people who have lost children to homicide and talk to them about my experience. For so long after Alex’s murder I thought, what’s the point, there’s no purpose in life. I couldn’t get out of bed in the mornings. I understand that I just have to live with this. But the pain and the grief will never go away.”

Breha’s solicitor, Harriet Wistrich of Birnberg Peirce solicitors, said: “The probation reforms – Transforming Rehabilitation – had an impact on cases like this one. There has been a failure in the probation service to understand violent sexual offenders and domestic violence.”

Harry Fletcher, a former head of the probation union Napo and now a campaigner for victims’ rights, said: “We have heard about an appalling litany of failings in this inquest. But because [of] the state the probation service is in now, I fear something similar could happen again.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “Our deepest condolences remain with the victim’s family, and we apologise unreservedly for the unacceptable failings in this case – we will now carefully consider the coroner’s findings. In the three years since Alex’s tragic death, the National Probation Service in London has undertaken a huge programme of work to improve standards and better protect the public. Over 1,300 probation staff in London have attended specialist domestic violence and child safeguarding training and we have recruited a further 180 trainee probation officers over the last year.”

Selen Cavcav, senior caseworker at the charity Inquest, said: “The critical conclusion of the jury once again exposes the consequences of the rushed and ill informed ‘transformation’ of probation services. Multiple opportunities to protect Liliya and Alex were missed, as their safety was put in the hands of inexperienced individuals working in overstretched services. This inquest has performed a vital function in publicly scrutinising these systemic failings, which must urgently be addressed at a national level.”


Diane Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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