'˜I don't know how my son died'
The parents of a four-week-old baby found wedged between a bed and a wall in his two-year-old brother's room were unable to say how he got there after spending the hours before his death drinking with pals, according to a new report.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Freddie Neil have been revealed in detail for the first time following a serious case review by the Blackpool Safeguarding Children Board.
The report found:
l Both dad Matthew Neil and mum Kim Smart-Neil had spent the 24 hours before their youngest son’s death consuming ‘a large quantity of alcohol’ in a pub and at home with friends;
l The pair were woken up by their two-year-old son Alex at noon the next day but his DJ dad, who had turned down help for his alcoholism weeks earlier, couldn’t find little Freddie;
l He was later found on the floor between a wall and bed in Alex’s room, but neither parent could tell investigators how he got there.
Mr Neil, who works in resort pubs and bars under the pseudonym Mat Black, told the Gazette he disputed several of the report’s findings, and that he believes he moved Freddie from a Moses basket while in an epilepsy-triggered fugue state, which he said sees him blackout and ‘wake up’ elsewhere suffering from amnesia.
“Only a couple of months ago I was at home on my own and I had a fit,” he said.
“I woke up at the end of North Pier. I had left my house and walked all the way down the Prom.
“I do think my epilepsy was a massive factor in that horrible morning. It’s hypothetical because I can’t prove it.”
The report, which went before a medical board, said his partner went to bed in the early hours of December 26, 2014, after the pair had spent Christmas afternoon and evening drinking.
Mr Neil, 34, stayed up with Freddie until around 6am, when his friends left the family’s home in Rydal Avenue, central Blackpool, the report said.
“It is unclear what happened next but [Mrs Smart-Neil] recalls attending to [Alex] at 4am and feeding [Freddie] at around 5am,” it said. “It is not known where [Freddie] was placed to sleep after his final feed or by which parent.”
Freddie’s inquest, which was held at Blackpool town hall in December, was told Mr Neil, who was ‘extremely tired and intoxicated’, remembered taking Freddie to bed but could not remember how he got to be in Alex’s room.
The court heard Mr Neil was woken up by Alex crying at the stair gate. His nappy was off and there was excrement on the floor.
Mr Neil changed Alex’s nappy before noticing Freddie wasn’t in his basket, the court heard.
Those attending the inquest were told Freddie was later found unresponsive, partially wrapped in blankets, following a search of the house.
Mr Neil tried CPR but the baby was pronounced dead after being taken to Blackpool Victoria Hospital, the inquest heard.
Both Mr Neil, who was found by police to be twice the legal drink drive limit, and Mrs Smart-Neil, were arrested on suspicion of neglect and manslaughter, but were released without charge in June.
A spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said a charge of wilful neglect was considered but dropped due to a lack of evidence.
Coroner Alan Wilson, who recorded an open-ended verdict, heard that because Freddie had bronchitis when he died, it was impossible to say what exactly caused his death.
Pathologist Dr Jo McPartland said she believed his death was caused largely by unsafe sleeping arrangements.
Speaking to The Gazette, Mr Neil denied being drunk and said he remembered putting Freddie to bed in his Moses basket, although he admitted he doesn’t know how he ended up in a different room.
He said: “It was Christmas and we both had more than we should’ve, but neither of us was inebriated.
“I believe I had a fit. There’s no way a four-week-old baby can make it from our room into Alex’s room on his own. It’s a sheer impossibility.
“One of us had to have moved him but when I have a fit I can’t remember half an hour before or after.
“I can’t remember taking him in there, so that’s the most viable explanation. It’s the most sensible one.
Mr Neil said he believes he may have been half-way through changing his sons’ nappies when he blacked out, which he said could explain why Alex wasn’t wearing a nappy.
“The way I found Alex with his nappy off – he couldn’t undress himself – makes me think I was half-way through changing him when I had a fit and then blacked out, went into the next room and got into bed,” he said.
Mr Neil said a neighbour who told Freddie’s inquest she heard a child crying at around 7.30am before a female voice shouted, ‘Stop it, stop it now’, must have heard somebody outside.
Shortly before 9am, the resident said she heard a baby ‘crying and screaming’ in a distressed state, the inquest was told.
But Mr Neil told The Gazette: “It must have been somebody outside. There are a few quite colourful people on that street. There’s a lady living doors away with around six kids and they are boisterous.
“They might have been walking past and might have shouted ‘stop it’, and the neighbour might’ve thought it came from our house but it didn’t.
“Again, that’s her word against ours. I wish I had CCTV in the house.”
The report, which also found there was nothing authorities involved with Freddie’s family could have done to prevent or predict his death, said Mr Neil was an ‘admitted alcoholic’ who told hospital staff he was drinking ‘seven plus pints per day’ after collapsing shortly before Freddie was born due to a fit brought on by alcohol withdrawal.
It found alcohol was a feature of Freddie’s short life but said there was no evidence it posed a problem until that night, with his parents providing a ‘relatively safe environment’.
Mr Neil twice turned up at Alex’s nursery smelling of alcohol during Freddie’s life, although staff did not believe him to be ‘under the influence’, the report said.
He did not seek help from drug and alcohol service Horizon until after Freddie’s death despite advice from his GP, it added.
Mr Neil told The Gazette he now believes his fit was caused by epilepsy, which he said was recently diagnosed after five years of fits.
He blamed the smell of alcohol on his late nights working as a DJ, and said he had spent several months building up a ‘good rapport’ with Horizon staff prior to Freddie’s death.
Mr Neil said he felt like an outcast after his initial arrest, and said he has now beaten his addiction.
“The first six months I could tell people were staying away from me,” he said.
“They did not know what to say to me. I just wanted to say to them, ‘I did not do anything.’
“I’m just a normal person now. I will have a social drink. I have a pint or glass of wine with a meal.
“I don’t have a single drop of alcohol in the house at all.
“I would quite happily stand up and say to people that, if you are in charge of children, I do think alcohol should not be drunk.”
Medical expert and author Dr Tom Smith said: “People coming out of fits can do all sorts of things they would not normally do and have no recollection of it at all. It’s called being in a state of fugue.
“We had a bad case some time ago when one man tended to stroke young girls’ hair after having a fit. He was accused of being a paedophile.”
He added: “But alcohol withdrawal fits and epileptic fits are quite obviously different types.”
A CPS spokeswoman said: “Following the death of four-week-old baby Freddie Neil on Boxing Day 2014, Lancashire Police arrested two people and conducted an investigation.
“They referred a file of evidence to the CPS for consideration of whether either person should face charges of neglect.
“The CPS considered the criminal charge of wilful neglect under the Children and Young Persons Act and the file was carefully reviewed according to the Code for Crown Prosecutors.
“The CPS concluded, following consultation with the investigating police officers, that there was insufficient evidence to charge either person with this offence.”
The serious case review was carried out by Amanda Clarke, who was drafted in from Derbyshire County Council to probe the services involved with Freddie’s family, including their GP and nursery, the ambulance and midwifery service, and health visitors.
She made a number of recommendations on how to prevent further deaths of this nature.
They include launching a campaign to warn of the dangers of drinking alcohol while looking after children, improving assessments to identify families’ needs, working with expectant and new fathers to offer advice and support, and introducing a compulsory safe sleep assessment to be carried out by health professionals.
Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden said: “From what I have read it is clear to me this is a poignant case which highlights the need for improved family support particularly when different stresses produce a tragic cycle of events, where neither the coroner nor the detailed review which followed Freddie Neal’s death found it possible to ascribe a simple cause and nor do I think would I.
“What is clear is that the resources to help strains and challenges for parents challenged by their circumstances have been whittled away in the last four to five years through the hollowing out of funding from Government for Sure Start facilities. Particularly in terms of the excellent work I’ve seen at Sure Starts in Blackpool in the past which they were designed to deliver via parenting classes, mother and father classes and the like, they are now much reduced.
“All the agencies who took part in this review need to think hard and urgently about how we can recreate that support for families and parents who struggle despite good intentions to do so and sometimes in difficult work and domestic circumstances.”
A spokesman for child protection charity NSPCC said: “Children who parents have alcohol problems can often be at most risk of harm, as this tragic case starkly illustrates.
“It’s crucial for these parents to seek help and support to develop healthy and secure relationships with their children.
“The NSPCC runs a specialised programme called Parents Under Pressure, which helps parents manage their alcohol problems and so create a safer family environment.”
Kim, who now lives in Northamptonshire, declined to comment on the report’s findings.