How Savanna was left to die

10th March 2005, Comments 0 comments

A three-year-old girl succumbed to abuse last year, dying allegedly at the hands of her mother. Her death leaves a trail of negligence by Dutch youth care services, but will a damning report lead to adequate change? Aaron Gray-Block reports.

Three suspects will face justice in several months time

The victim of regular abuse, the lifeless body of three-year-old Savanna was found in the boot of her mother's car last September.

She was the victim of failure; the shortcomings of those meant to protect her. A report condemned the Council for the Protection of Children and the Youth Care service in North Holland on Thursday.

The Youth Care Inspectorate report said the council, youth care services and the child abuse reporting office AMK made crucial errors, pointing out that it was known at least two-and-a-half years prior to Savanna's death that there were problems with the family.

In response to a report lodged with the AMK indicating that Savanna was the victim of neglect, malnutrition and possible abuse, the girl was placed into foster care in February 2002.

Six months later, Savanna was reunited with her mother — who had moved from Nieuwkoop to Alphen aan den Rijn. But signals of abuse were being detected right up until her death on 20 September 2004.

Gruesome discovery

Police found Savanna's body after her mother, Sonja de J., and her partner, Mario B., were pulled over for driving on a road closed to traffic at night near the eastern Dutch town of Holten. A shovel was also found in the vehicle.

But De J. denied in a pre-trial hearing in The Hague Court last December that she killed Savanna, who is alleged to have died after a face cloth or sock was forced down her throat. Her mouth was then allegedly taped shut.

Both De J. and B. are accused of locking the toddler up in her bedroom and letting her choke to death and of trying to dispose of her body. De J. has allegedly confessed she was planning to bury her daughter's body.

The defendants are currently undergoing a psychiatric assessment in the Pieter Baan Centre. The trial is expected to commence at the end of May or the start of June. A third suspect, Reffles M., of Nieuwkoop, is accused of mistreating Savanna.

Prosecutors claim that Savanna was regularly allowed to starve and weighed just 10kg at the time of her death. The girl was allegedly refused food because she was naughty or failed to ask for it in proper Dutch.

An autopsy indicated acetone in her system, indicating that her body had started using itself as a source of nourishment for energy.

Negligence and no supervision

The first sketchy reports of Savanna's death have culminated thus far in the inspectorate's damming report accusing the child protection council of failing to evaluate the advisability of Savanna's return to her mother in July 2002.

The North Holland youth care bureau was rebuked for allowing Savanna to return home despite the fact that De J. refused parenting assistance and visits from social workers. Such actions were unacceptable, the inspectorate said.

A guardian (or voogd in Dutch) assigned the task of supervising the family listened too much to the mother's demands and explanations. She is also accused of negligence, having ignored various signals from neighbours and social work groups of regular abuse.

The reconstructed head of Rowena Rikkers

A manager failed to keep adequate watch on the guardian, refusing also to read the family's dossier. The bureau chief then failed to pass on the file to youth care services in the Alphen aan den Rijn region.

Accusations of a communication breakdown between various health and social work groups add to the drama. The AMK is accused of failing to pay heed to the final reports from health professionals about the family.

In that period, the family health clinic had urged the placing into foster care of both Savanna and a new baby in the family. But the AMK focused on the safety of the new baby because Savanna was already under supervision.

The inspectorate said the AMK should have more clearly stated its concerns for the safety of the three-year-old toddler.

Repeated failings

Savanna's d

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