Sheffield mum who killed sons was viewed as 'loving, caring and competent' by safeguarding professionals
There is no evidence 14 separate practitioners could have predicted a Sheffield mum and her half-brother would murder their two eldest children and plot to kill the other four, a review has found.
In November, incestuous couple Sarah Barrass, 36, Brandon Machin, 40, were sentenced to life imprisonment to serve a minimum of 35 years for the murders of their sons Blake, 14, and Tristan, 13, on May 24, 2019.
Barrass and her half-brother were also sentenced for conspiracy to murder all six of their children and for their initial attempt to murder Blake and Tristan, and two more of their children at their home in Shiregreen.
The findings of a serious case review, looking at whether lessons could be learned from the tragedy, was published today, Friday, August 28.
David Ashcroft, chair of Sheffield Children’s Safeguarding Partnership, said: “The SCR concludes that ‘the murders of these two children was a tragedy and there is no evidence from this review process that any of the practitioners and agencies involved with the family could have predicted the actions taken by their parents.
"This review has seen significant evidence of effective and caring practice for the children by all agencies involved with the family.”
Despite this, the review published 11 recommendations. It also concluded: “Practitioners saw [Barrass] as a loving, caring and competent mother.”
Barrass, who was sexually abused as a child, with one individual convicted of her rape in 2000, ‘frequently’ self referred to support services and the police regarding Blake and, in the final weeks of his life, Tristan.
From jail, she told Alex Walters, the independent reviewer in the family’s case, she was ‘terrified’ she was ‘raising monsters’. The report continued: “She described feeling how could she as a mother support two of her children who she felt were developing as sexual predators and also protect her other four children.”
In June 2017, after Barrass had been told Blake was spying on a child under the age of 13 in the family’s shower, she suggested her son should be arrested.
Barrass felt Blake and Tristan’s obsession with online pornography and level of masturbation was not ‘normal’ and that she was given no answers about what to do as a mother. Concerns about Blake’s sexualised behaviours were identified in 2015 when he was 11 but he did not receive an intervention until late October 2018. ‘Considering how needs can be met in a more timely way’ was among the report’s recommendations, which also included a more coordinated approach between service providers and improving understanding of and response to harmful sexual behaviour.
Both children’s behaviour worsened throughout 2018/19, the report said, with increasing incidents of bullying, fighting and aggression in school and an interest in online violence and pornographic websites and masturbation at both school and home.
However, practitioners “appeared to lack confidence in understanding this specialist area of abuse and were not confident in their response.” Six referrals because of perceived harmful sexual behaviour were made over a period of up to three years, but ‘were not felt to meet eligibility criteria’.
The report said Barrass “wished the supportive interventions from a number of the agencies had begun earlier”, while Machin “felt that they had been asking for help for too long” and “raised concerns around many delays to service provision.”
Both parents also “experienced a number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and research identifies the long term impact of toxic stress on individuals who have suffered a number of ACEs including sexual abuse, violence, separation, loss and neglect as a child.” Both spent time in care as children and were subject to Child Protection Plans as a result of neglect.
Following a sexual assault inside the home, practitioners advised Barrass to have an open door policy at all times and separate the older from the younger children. Yet the report questioned whether this response was “sufficiently robust to minimise harmful sexual behaviour between the siblings.” The family were also working with a housing provider to find a larger home amid Barrass’ struggles to keep her children apart in her three-bedroom property on Gregg House Road, Shiregreen.
Barrass told Ms Walters she felt unable to tell her children or agencies about the father’s paternity, despite repeated questioning from practitioners. Although she was repeatedly given assurances her children would not be taken into care, "due to her past she felt unable to believe them.”
Mr Ashcroft confirmed there would have been “no automatic link” between social services finding out Machin was the children’s father and them being taken into care.
He said: “That would have been information that would have been fed into a comprehensive assessment”.
In court, the prosecution’s case had been that the defendants were motivated to prevent the loss of their children into the care as well as their fear of local authorities becoming aware of their unnatural relationship.
The report said: “Many of the agency authors recognised that their practitioners needed to be more professionally curious in their interactions with the family”. A better understanding of Machin’s role in the family should also have been undertaken earlier, the report said.
The report also concluded Barrass’ childhood history of neglect and sexual abuse “needed to be explored further to understand the impact on the children”, although Ms Walters, said there was “no evidence of any disclosure from the children” of sexual abuse, despite there being “significant opportunity” for them to tell social workers.