Heroin addict mother convicted of fatally neglecting young asthma-suffering son
A nurse warned a vulnerable severely asthmatic seven-year-old boy “could die at the weekend” two days before the youngster’s death, alone and “gasping for air”, after being fatally neglected by his mother.
The alert – at a child protection conference on Friday afternoon – was not immediately acted on and, by the early hours of Sunday, Hakeem Hussain was dead.
“Incapable” Laura Heath deliberately “prioritised her addiction to heroin and crack cocaine” prior to the “needless, premature” death of Hakeem from an asthma attack on November 26 2017, Crown QC Jonas Hankin told the jury.
An image seen by jurors during the Coventry Crown Court trial showed how Heath had even used foil and an elastic band to rig one of her son’s blue inhalers to smoke crack, fuelling a £55-a-day habit.
Heath, formerly of Long Acre, Nechells, Birmingham, was convicted on Friday of gross negligence manslaughter of “frail” Hakeem, who died at the home of a friend where his mother had been staying.
The 40-year-old had admitted four counts of child cruelty before trial, including failing to provide proper medical supervision and exposing Hakeem to the smoke of asthma triggers; heroin, crack and cigarettes.
Social services in Birmingham were aware of Hakeem before his death, and it emerged at trial how at a child protection conference on November 24, 2017 – just two days before his fatal collapse – a school nurse told the meeting “he could die at the weekend from asthma”.
Nurse Melanie Richards, as well as a family outreach worker at Hakeem’s Nechells Primary School who was also in the meeting, scored Hakeem’s safety as “zero” out of 10.
Neelam Ahmed, the family outreach lead at the school, said: “There were no safety or protective factors and Hakeem was at significant risk of harm.”
Despite those votes, and a low score from the social worker, the meeting ended with agreement the social worker would speak to Heath on Monday – by which time Hakeem had died.
A serious case review into agencies’ contact with Hakeem is set to be published within weeks.
But Andy Couldrick, chief executive of Birmingham Children’s Trust, which took over child social services in early 2018, said following the trial there were “clear missed opportunities” in social services’ handling of the case.
Jurors heard how Heath had lived at Long Acre since 2013, with one visitor describing conditions as “disgusting”.
The same witness told how Hakeem said he had no bed, sleeping instead on the sofa, while there was evidence Heath used an upstairs bedroom for sex work to fund her habit with a basket of condoms next to the mattress.
Heath recently started staying with a friend, Timothy Busk who lived in a flat in Cook Street, a short walk away, with one friend describing it as being “foggy and smoky” inside, and a “mess”.
While there that night, Heath would later tell police she smoked three bags of heroin – two before Hakeem went to bed at 10.30pm – and one afterwards, leaving her in a drug-induced sleep.
At 7.37am on Sunday November 26, Heath was woken by Mr Busk – who had found Hakeem dead in the garden and carried the youngster’s gaunt body to the sofa.
She called 999, later telling police in interview: “Hakeem was freezing and his lips were blue.
“Hakeem would go out when he was unwell and must have fallen asleep (when outside).
“I just suspect he didn’t wake me up, took himself to get fresh air and then probably fell asleep.”
In the early hours, a neighbour had heard tapping at his window but – going downstairs to investigate – saw nothing in the darkness.
Heath did not give evidence in her defence, with prosecutors saying it showed she was “unable to hear the truth”.
Jurors heard Hakeem’s father – who attended for much of the trial – was in prison at the time of the boy’s death, for an unrelated offence, and that Heath had previously had other children taken into care.
I asked to take Hakeem back to my house, but she (Heath) refused
Chloe Cooper, Heath's friend, in evidence to the court
Teachers said Hakeem turned up to school often late – when he was taken at all – in unwashed uniform, dirty, and his “mop” of black hair, uncut.
Despite the squalor of home life, teachers said Hakeem was “bubbly”, “bright” and a keen student, who enjoyed reading.
Jurors also heard how Heath’s friend Chloe Cooper, disgusted by conditions she witnessed at the boy’s home the day before his death, offered to take him home with her “but she (Heath) refused”, she said.
Prosecutors said Heath should have been well aware of Hakeem’s spiralling health problems.
Hakeem was admitted with breathing difficulties to Birmingham Children’s Hospital’s high dependency unit for four days, in September 2017, receiving treatment for his “life-threatening” condition.
It was his third hospital admission.
At the opening of the trial, the Crown said Heath “failed to administer” any “preventer” asthma medication in the two days before he died, and did not have access to a spacer device, used to get more drugs into a child’s lungs.
Police searches later found part of a spacer amid the squalor of mouldy food, over-filled ashtrays, and drugs paraphernalia in Long Acre.
Heath will be sentenced on Thursday.