Mum of ‘neglected’ kids who died in fire ‘laughed in faces of child officers’

A mum whose four children died in a house fire “laughed in the faces” of child protection officers who accused her of neglecting her little ones.

Mum-of-five Natalie Unitt refused to accept that her children, aged between three and eight, were neglected despite them communicating by “grunting” and having at least 50 injuries.

Riley Holt, 8, Keegan Unitt, 6, Tilly Unitt, 4, and Olly Unitt, 3, died in a house fire thought to be caused by a discarded cigarette as their parents slept on February 5 last year.

Unitt and her boyfriend Chris Moulton were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter by gross negligence after the tragedy in Stafford but in August prosecutors said no further action would be taken, citing “insufficient evidence”.

Now, a serious case review into the way agencies worked with the family has been published which noted how the kids were living in “utter chaos”.

The review, by Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Safeguarding Children Board, concludes that the children had suffered emotional, physical and medical neglect for several years.

But their mum was said to still to this day not accept her kids were neglected.

Review author Joanna Nicolas wrote: “Interestingly the mother told the report that she ‘laughed in their faces’ when professionals mentioned the word neglect.

“She does not accept to this day that the children were neglected.

“She told the report author that she had had five children and therefore she knew how to parent.

“It was more a case of the mother knowing what to say to professionals, rather than accepting there were concerns and wanting to change.

“No tool was used to gather the evidence in a way that the frontline professionals could see what was actually happening well that might have helped professionals understand the mother did not think there was a problem in the first place.”

The report found professionals didn’t question the evidence in front of them and just believed “the mother’s word”.

Nursery staff flagged how one of them hadn’t had their nappy changed since the previous night.

The kids were also found with 50 injuries, marks or bruises in a 17-month period.

The Unitt family had first come to the attention of Staffordshire County Council in 2017. A child protection plan was later put in place, although little progress was made.

The report said: “One of the greatest concerns about the children was their lack of speech. Professionals described the home as silent, despite there being five children in it.”

During an appointment with a paediatrician, one of the youngsters simply “grunted and pointed at things”.

Another had a “frozen expression” in front of a social worker, showing no response.

The children, who also had signs of development delay, were referred for speech and language therapy.

“There is considerable evidence that the children were not given sufficient stimulation, supervision or guidance,” added Ms Nicolas.

One of them was simply put by the TV in their pushchair all day.

In response to concerns raised about their kids’ injuries, the parents claimed one of the bruises was just play-dough and two other marks were down to bumping into a sofa.

The report praises the efforts of health professionals, who “chivvied and chased” to try to get the family to attend appointments.

But Ms Nicolas said: “The mother was controlling the relationships that the entire family had with agencies.”

Professionals also failed to appreciate that Mr Moulton was the primary carer and instead focused on the mother’s needs.

Yet as neither parent displayed “high-risk indicators”, such as mental health or substance abuse problems, the children were considered at the “lower end” of neglect cases. Plans for a parenting assessment were “never actioned”.

Helen Riley, the council’s director for families and communities and who is also the acting chairman of the safeguarding board, said: “While the tragic nature of these deaths could not have been predicted, there are certainly areas of practice around the family that can be improved.”

It later emerged that parents Natalie Unitt and Christopher Moulton had been smoking in bed that night in February 2019. A discarded cigarette is thought to have sparked the devastating fire.

The children’s youngest brother, who was a toddler at the time, survived.

An inquest into the children’s death held in November heard social services had warned the couple about the dangers of smoking in bed, before one of the parents’ cigarettes is thought to have set fire to bedding in the main bedroom, sending fire tearing through the house in Sycamore Lane, Highfields, Staffordshire.

The parents had been smoking in bed with a fifth sibling also sleeping in their bedroom.

This meant he survived, along with his parents, who managed to escape the flames despite the fire originating in the main bedroom.

The inquest heard how the fire started after the pair were smoking in bed but the parents disputed the findings of the emergency services.

Mr Moulton claimed the fire had begun in the gas boiler cupboard on the landing – a theory ruled out by a fire investigator.

The fire caused a “flash-over”, with everything in the main bedroom catching alight.

The flames then spread to the landing, which meant Mr Moulton was unable to reach the children asleep in the other bedrooms.

Giving evidence at the hearing, Ms Unitt said the first she became aware of the fire was when she woke up and felt a ‘heaviness’ in her chest. “I still have nightmares about it now,” she added.

But when pressed to describe what happened, she said she couldn’t recall as she suffers from post-traumatic stress.

Mr Moulton suffered serious burns to his hands.

He was asked at the hearing if he’d picked up a burning duvet to try to take to it the bathroom. “No, I didn’t,” he replied.

Mr Moulton jumped out of his bedroom window to escape, having passed their youngest child to Ms Unitt.

Leigh Richards, from West Midlands Fire Service, was called in to piece together what happened in the early hours of February 5 last year.

He said it appeared Ms Unitt had gone downstairs to get water to put out the blaze.

But the flames meant she was unable to get back upstairs so she fled out of a door.

A search of the charred remains revealed there had been more than 100 cigarette butts left lying around different rooms of the house.

One cigarette found in a window casement had not been stubbed out.

It emerged the couple had earlier been advised by social services against smoking inside their home.

Mr Richards said the remains of a glass ashtray was found, which appeared to have melted onto the mattress springs on their bed.

There had been three smoke detectors in the house. Yet the inquest heard that studies have shown children often don’t hear detectors go off, despite adults responding to the sound.

The four children all died in their beds from smoke and fire inhalation.

Detective Inspector Alan Lyford, from Staffordshire Police’s major investigations department, said there were discrepancies between Mr Moulton and Ms Unitt’s accounts and in relation to the evidence at the scene.

The couple were initially arrested and a file was submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service, although no further action was taken.

DI Lyford said: “They deemed there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.”

South Staffordshire coroner Andrew Haigh said: “My hope is the children died quite peacefully in their beds.”

He recorded a narrative conclusion, saying it was due to fumes from the fire caused by unextinguished cigarettes.