The 999 call came in just after midnight. With Saturday sliding into Sunday, the streets of Sheffield ricocheted with the sounds of boozy bravado. On the line was the landlady of the Scarbrough Arms, a quiet pub in Upperthorpe, a nondescript suburb off the inner ring road. Her name was Sabrina Hirst and she was calling about Tiffany, her three-year-old daughter, who had collapsed and was not breathing. The operator coached her in basic CPR, hoping the child would live long enough for the paramedics to arrive.
A police patrol made it first to the white-walled corner plot on Addy Street. Upstairs, in the flat above the pub, the officers found Sabrina Hirst crouched in a bedroom doorway over a small body. The child was dead. One of the officers lifted Tiffany’s arm and noted that it was floppy, not stiff with rigor mortis, that her skin was tinged with an odd, blackening pallor and that her eyes were sallow and sunken. Stranger still, she was covered in a skein of insect bites, adding to the building suspicion that she had been dead for some time. A dog barking in another room drew the officer away. In the bedroom next door a baby screamed, purple with panic, naked in his dishevelled cot.
Police quizzed Sabrina and a man who introduced himself as Robert Hirst, her husband. They made an odd couple. Balding and overweight, Robert was 43, 22 years older than his young wife. He said he was Tiffany’s stepfather and that the baby in the cot was his child. Police noted that Sabrina was heavily pregnant. Tiffany, she said, had come down with some kind of “bug”. She had last eaten on Thursday: “A sandwich and some water.” Sabrina had next checked on her at 7am on Friday, when Tiffany seemed “OK”. That was more than 36 hours earlier, the officers calculated. The Hirsts clammed up. In the early hours of Sunday, police arrested the couple. They were taken to South Yorkshire police headquarters, and their one-year-old baby placed in foster care. A murder inquiry rapidly unfolded, centring on the pub. Neighbours, family and friends awoke that Sunday morning, 30 September 2007, to find their local guarded by police.
Detective chief inspector Dave Powell got to work. “The crime scene was everything in this case,” he said, “and it was the worst thing I have witnessed in more than 100 murders.” Heavy locks were on the internal doors leading from the bar to the living quarters, but this was not a high crime area – the Hirsts had put them there to keep casual visitors at bay. The locks, Powell thought, suggested premeditation. Climbing the stairs, he had stepped over soiled nappies flung into empty catering boxes of Walkers crisps. Dog excrement had been trampled all over the flat. In Tiffany’s bedroom a stained pillow bore the indent from her head. “Where were the sheets? There was no duvet, no toys, only a small pair of well-worn, pink and white Adidas trainers.” Tiffany appeared to have clutched them as she lay dying.
Behind one of several stained mattresses that stood upended in the room, Powell found unopened Christmas presents addressed to Tiffany from the previous year. A dirty pair of orange curtains hung off the runners. He glanced out of the window and noticed the local GP practice and health centre across the road. He turned back to the child’s bed to stare at hundreds of pieces of lilac wallpaper, scattered around it like discarded confetti.
On 2 October 2007, the Hirsts were released from custody; five days later, Sabrina gave birth to her third child. The baby was taken into care 10 days later, while police waited for the final pieces of forensic evidence. By the time they rearrested the Hirsts on 17 December 2007 and charged them with murder, Tiffany’s “bug” had been identified as terminal bronchial pneumonia, a condition more commonly associated with famine victims; it takes a while to set in and rarely kills in the developed world. The child would have been visibly ill – feverish, coughing, vomiting – but no one had administered any medicine or called a doctor.
In their medical reports, doctors noted Tiffany’s immunity was already dangerously weakened since she was chronically malnourished. Her size was “typical of a two- rather than a three-year-old”, and her leg and arm bones were marked with growth arrest lines, meaning she had suffered long periods without food – she had barely put on any weight in the last year of her life. A toxicology examination found a condition common in anorexia sufferers in which the body begins to eat itself, the liver converting body fat into fatty acids. Analysis of Tiffany’s stomach contents revealed she’d had nothing to eat for more than 20 hours before her death, which was likely to have been three days before the 999 call. What definitively proved how much time had elapsed between her death and her mother’s call for help was an entomological analysis of the insect larvae that had hatched on the corpse as it lay naked on a urine-soaked bed.
In return for a guilty plea, on 27 June 2008 Sabrina was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Robert, having started a new job a week before Tiffany’s death, could place himself outside the flat at the time; he pleaded guilty to child cruelty and neglect, and was sentenced to five years. In the absence of cross-examination, neither had to explain or defend their actions. A child living in a community rich in health, education and social services had been starved to death. Yet the Tiffany Wright killing soon slipped from public view.
Five months later, the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly, Baby P, provoked a political firestorm around Haringey, the local authority responsible for his welfare, leading to the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith, the children‘s services director, and the resignation of several social workers. A government inquiry was set up into social work reform. Yet the case was anything but unique: in the two years since April 2007 (when records into unnatural child deaths were centrally collated), 167 children had died from abuse or neglect, mostly at the hands of their own families – in many cases families known to social workers.
What Tiffany’s death highlights in particular is the growing problem of neglect. Over the last five years, the number of children on child protection plans for neglect has risen by 30%. However, the NSPCC has raised concerns that social workers are not acting quickly enough to safeguard such children. Ill-equipped to deal with early signs of neglect, they often wait until there is physical abuse before intervening. New timelines are to be introduced to try to prevent such “drift”.
But it was not only these systemic failures that claimed Tiffany Wright. Her case also challenges the British notion of community: family and friends, neighbours, pub regulars, staff, all watched as a sickening child faded from view, and not one of them called for help.
Five days after she was arrested and charged with Tiffany’s murder, Sabrina wrote to a relative from HMP Wakefield. “Six months ago I had it all, a fabulous husband, two gorgeous children, one little bump on the way, a home (albeit not a good one) and a steady job. Now I’ve lost my precious first-born little girl. I miss her so much and would give anything to have her back in my life.” A few weeks later, more thoughts, penned in Sabrina’s adolescent hand: “I failed my little Angel. I feel totally lost, lonely and empty. Someone up there must really hate me, always has and probably always will. Why did it all have to fall apart?”
From the start, things had been complicated, even when she had been Sabrina Shaw, the product of a teenage romance, growing up with her mother Brigitte and sister Louise. Brigitte was not a hands-on presence, spending her days as a nursing assistant. Friends say she was independent and proud of what work bought her: a new television, nice furniture, the odd foreign holiday; even their council house in Shirecliffe, North Sheffield, overlooking abandoned steelworks.
When Sabrina and Louise, who was two years older, were at Shirecliffe Junior, their father left and Brigitte married Paul Bennett. The two sisters drew closer, but reacted in different ways. While Louise hung around Shirecliffe at weekends, Sabrina withdrew into her room with a succession of pets: staffordshire bull terriers and hamsters. “We never really knew what Sabrina was thinking,” said one relative. At 14, she turned in on herself even further when her sister moved out. For six months no one knew where Louise was; when she finally reappeared in 2001, it was to announce that she was pregnant and moving in with her boyfriend. Sabrina was alone. Her relationship with her mother and stepfather deteriorated. She got into trouble, looking for a reaction, her worsening behaviour driving people away.
In summer 2002, Louise gave birth to a daughter. Sabrina passed nine GCSEs, enrolled at sixth-form college and passed one A-level. In late 2003, at the Five Arches, a large, noisy pub a few miles from home, she fell in with Martin Wright. They argued viciously, friends recalled, yet in September 2004 Sabrina found herself alongside Louise on the maternity ward at Sheffield children’s hospital. Her sister was pregnant with her second child, a son; Sabrina awaited the delivery of a daughter she planned to call Tiffany.
Louise later wrote on her Facebook page of their shared maternity: “I will never forget the day u was born [Tiffany]… Me and ur mum was the talk of the ward. 2 sisters with babies just 2 days apart. U was so tiny long an thin but u were beautiful.”
Sabrina seemed to agree. “She was the only good thing to come out of my teenage years…” she wrote from prison. “I was so happy… she finally gave me something good in my life.”
At first, all seemed to go well. As teenage parents, Sabrina and Martin qualified for a council house. Tiffany was registered with a doctor, and appeared healthy and happy – photos show a well-dressed and cared for little girl, asleep in her rocker. After Tiffany’s death, police found a box of baby things that Sabrina had kept: a scan, hospital wrist tag, her first socks and sleepsuits. But she would later say she was already daunted by her responsibilities and miserable in her relationship.
Martin moved out when Tiffany was three months old, while Sabrina, like her own mother, sought independence in work. She took the first job she was offered, behind the bar at the Five Arches, leaving Tiffany with friends or relatives. She also secretly began dating the pub landlord. Rob Hirst was supposedly out of bounds: he was old enough to be her father, he already had three daughters and a stepdaughter with his long-term partner, Donna; even his friends told her to stay clear. No sooner had he got Sabrina into bed than he left his wife and kids, and encouraged her to move into the pub in December 2004. According to friends, Hirst lavished money and attention on his new girlfriend. Sabrina came out of her shell and told her sister she was in love for the first time.
The pair left Sheffield to run a village pub in Staffordshire in early 2005, and soon after Sabrina found out she was pregnant. Rob had made a big thing about her having his child, but no sooner had she become pregnant than he started disappearing. She revealed none of this in occasional calls and texts to friends and family. But, heavily pregnant and miles away from her sister, Sabrina later said she had been depressed, anxious and overworked. “[Rob] did less and less. I got used to being on my own down there looking after Tiffany and the pub,” she wrote in one prison letter.
A dangerous pattern of behaviour began to emerge as Sabrina left Tiffany alone upstairs in her bedroom with a bag of crisps while she manned the bar. If anyone asked after the little girl, she’d say she was with relatives. A friend said, “Rob told her it was OK to leave Tiffany alone – he said he had done the same with his kids by Donna.”
For anyone to spot that Sabrina was failing, she would have had to stay in one place long enough. But she didn’t: in early 2006, she and Rob moved to a pub in Barnsley. Then in July 2006 they returned to Sheffield, with a lease for the Scarbrough Arms, not far from Sabrina’s family and friends, a place where they would be rooted. It wasn’t much to look at – on a run-down street corner near the university campus, it had a tired interior of maroon velour and pie-crust tables – but it had a solid base of tight-knit regulars, who say Sabrina was proud to show she had come good. And it all looked promising. Tiffany was registered at the Upperthorpe Medical Centre. Nearby was the Zest Centre, a library, gym and swimming pool used by mother and toddler groups, and the Playtime Centre, with its free young mums’ baby and bump group.
All these could have come in handy – two months after taking on the pub, Sabrina gave birth to a boy. But things began to go wrong immediately. When she arrived home from hospital without sleepsuits, Rob volunteered to get some. He vanished for seven hours. “We had a delivery due that afternoon, so 16 hours after giving birth, I opened the pub with both children downstairs and after-pains,” Sabrina wrote from prison. “It was the worst day of my life.” When Rob finally returned, he said he’d run out of petrol.
Paranoid about Rob’s increasing absences and working all hours at the pub, Sabrina later told a friend she felt she was “falling to pieces”. But it was Tiffany who was really suffering, a fact picked up by Kathleen Delaney, a community midwife who began visiting soon after the family moved in. According to legal documents, Delaney pressed Sabrina over several visits to let her into the flat to see where Tiffany and the baby were sleeping. Alarmed by the filthy conditions, she registered her concerns with health visitors at the local medical centre: this family clearly needed help.
By October 2006, having heard nothing, Delaney returned unannounced to find Rob alone at the bar. He said Sabrina and the children were out, and the door to the flat was locked. Delaney stayed put, however, surprising Sabrina when she returned alone and forcing her to take her upstairs. She found the baby cold, naked, hysterical and strapped into a chair – he had clearly been left for some time. There was no sign of Tiffany, who Sabrina claimed was “asleep in bed”. The midwife demanded that Sabrina dress and clean the boy. She was never to leave them locked up again.
Delaney could see things were critical, so she called up the city council’s children’s specialist services. She expected them to act quickly and energetically. What she did not know was that, overburdened and understaffed, the local authority had been hiring unqualified support workers to field phone calls from the public. These untrained operators had only a few phone lines to deal with complaints from a city of more than 500,000 people. It could take hours of persistent calling just to get through.
Despite the severity of Delaney’s warning, this ad hoc system of referral led to a decision to assist Sabrina “by way of a letter”. She did not reply. No one from children’s specialist services visited the pub. No one saw the children. And three days after the letter was sent, the ”contact” file on Tiffany and her brother was closed without any kind of assessment by a trained social worker.
Delaney persisted. She had no idea her report to social services had gone nowhere, but she again informed Upperthorpe Medical Centre. The family was supposed to receive regular health visitor check-ups, but it would be two more weeks before one popped into the pub across the road. When she did, Sabrina refused to let her upstairs.
Friends and family were growing concerned. Sabrina was increasingly moody and frequently tearful, and Rob was never around. Their debts were spiralling. The business was demanding. The children had needs Sabrina had no idea how to meet, but there was no time for playing, going to the park, giving love and attention. To cut down on laundry, she left them undressed. Rob sometimes tolerated Sabrina bringing his son down to the bar, but Tiffany was almost always left upstairs.
Janine Buxton, who worked behind the bar, said, “As Tiffany grew up, Rob’s attitude to her changed. He only spoke to her to tell her off.” One pub-goer said he once saw Rob shout at Tiffany as she sat in the bar with a sandwich, “Eat your fucking food, you little bitch.”
To make matters worse, he bought a succession of large dogs: a great dane, a staffie, a rottweiler. Paul Todd, a rare visitor to the flat when he was employed to do some odd jobs in late 2006, recalled how he had opened a door to find Tiffany shut in her bedroom. “I was horrified. There was a young child sat on the bed, crying and whimpering in the dark with no clothes on. She’d clearly been like that for some time.”
One of Sabrina’s relatives who worked at the bar heard tapping coming from above the pool table, where Tiffany’s bedroom was. “I had the horrible thought that Tiffany was being locked in her room when Sabrina and Robert went out.”
Eventually, Sabrina’s aunt, Sharon Sutheran, intervened. Left in charge of the pub one weekend, she and her partner decided to redecorate, “because we didn’t want to see them living in squalor”. They painted the kitchen, stairs and landing, tidied Tiffany’s bedroom and painted it lilac. They rearranged the bed with teddy bears and soft toys they found stuffed in a bin bag. “When Tiffany got home, she came running into the room and saw her bed done up and her walls painted, and she was so happy,” Sutheran said. Sabrina gave her aunt a mouthful and told her not to interfere again.
Yet this was a wake-up call. In November 2006, Sabrina enrolled Tiffany at Breedon House, a private nursery. In her red school jumper and surrounded by other children, she began to come out of her shell. In the run-up to Christmas 2006, she made a 2007 calendar, a black card covered in splodges of white paint that her mother hung in the kitchen. All the significant dates for September 2007 were ringed when police found it: Sabrina’s son’s first birthday on 3 September, Tiffany’s on 13 September, their cousin Louise’s second child two days later.
There was more good news: Sabrina and Rob were going to marry. Tiffany made a card, inscribed by a nursery worker: “To Mummy and Daddy, have a very nice wedding day, Love you lots, Tiffany.”
But Sabrina’s fears and depression deepened. She confided in friends that Rob was again going missing for days at a time, and that the wedding, in December 2006, was a desperate attempt to “sort her life out”. And she was pregnant again. She had an infant, a toddler, a baby on the way, and a business with a man she feared was engaged in some secret enterprise.
Sabrina spent that Christmas working around the clock, while Tiffany and her brother were locked upstairs. Everyone sent presents for the children, including a toy vet’s station and a miniature kitchen set, but the family did not find out until after Tiffany had died that most had been stuffed, unopened, behind an old mattress.
By now, there were many clues that things were going seriously wrong. After Christmas 2006, Tiffany did not return to nursery, and the bill for the previous six weeks went unpaid. No one called round or even telephoned. If they had, they’d have seen a child who was starting to show physical signs of serious neglect, her nails ragged, her hair falling out. When her aunt Louise was occasionally allowed to take Tiffany out, she found her ravenously hungry and so thirsty that she drained several juice bottles in succession. Others noticed a sticky black line around her neck, as if she wasn’t being washed, and an awful smell. “She reeked of stale urine,” said one. But whenever a health visit was due, Sabrina cleaned up the children. Untrained in child protection, the Upperthorpe health visitor reported in February 2007 that Tiffany appeared healthy and happy. Sabrina’s family and friends were concerned enough to offer help, but all were refused.
Glancing at her husband’s mobile phone one morning, Sabrina’s worst fears were confirmed: he had never given up his first wife and children. All the time he had told her he was working, Rob had been with his other family, enjoying a parallel life, stringing Sabrina along. She wrote from prison, “When [Rob] wasn’t away… with his other family he was on the phone to them or texting them and… lying to me about where he was going. Or meeting them in secret.”
“Interviews with family and relatives gave us the impression that Tiffany had been loved as a baby, but things dramatically changed after Robert Hirst came into their lives,” said a senior police officer. “Hirst’s methodology was to pick on vulnerable women with young children, have more trophy kids with them to parade through his bar, and then dump them.”
The last time anyone from the Sheffield care agencies saw either child was 25 July 2007, when the health visitor called, only to be again refused access upstairs. She examined Tiffany’s brother in the bar, and left having not seen Tiffany at all. By this time, the child was a “bag of bones”, said her grandmother, Brigitte. Louise, meanwhile, was by now so worried about the niece she rarely saw that in late August 2007, when she looked after her one night, she snapped a photograph on her mobile phone. It would be the last picture of Tiffany, and shows a solemn little girl dressed in her cousin’s tie-dye pullover.
Nobody saw Tiffany on her third birthday two weeks later, and on 26 September 2007, when another health visitor called at the pub, she was told that Sabrina and the children were not at home. Accepting the excuse, the health visitor left. Upstairs, Tiffany was locked in her bedroom.
The next few days were a blank until police recovered CCTV footage from the pub and found a microphone had picked up Sabrina and Rob’s most private conversations. On 27 September 2007, the day Sabrina had told police she had last fed her daughter, the CCTV recorded her cleaning the bar while saying to no one in particular, “I have to get my daughter up. I’ve not seen her for a week.” The next day, she was seen leaving the pub alone to go shopping at Tesco for an hour. There was also no sign of the children when Sabrina and Rob left the pub to visit friends for two hours on Saturday morning, or that afternoon when they went shopping and came back an hour later with bags of dog food. Later, Sabrina was taped talking about buying vitamin supplements for her staffie, which had been losing weight.
Only on the final segment of tape did Sabrina remember to look in on her sick daughter, shortly after 9pm on the Saturday, with the pub’s night session in full swing. She went upstairs and returned 10 minutes later, clearly in distress. She took Rob upstairs, where he stayed till 10.30pm, a time during which, detectives believe, Tiffany’s fetid bedroom was tidied and her naked corpse dressed in a clean nightie. When the last customer left just after midnight, Rob and Sabrina faced each other. “Obviously she’s been dead for two days,” he said. “We could get fucking banged up for this, everything took away from us.” She looked at him with horror. Ten minutes later, she called 999.
Sheffield social services held a serious case review behind closed doors. It conceded there had been “serious failings” in dealings with the family. Despite a midwife’s multiple attempts to raise the alarm, none of the professional care agencies had intervened: “There were lengthy periods when [Tiffany] was not seen by professionals from any care agency and she was rarely seen at home.” And even though concerns had been registered repeatedly with the local medical centre, these, too, “were never adequately addressed”. Midwife, health visitor and GP records were never cross-referenced, so the GPs “were not even aware” of Tiffany’s plight. Much was made of the Hirsts’ attempts to deceive the health visitor and midwife, with the review finding, “It is particularly difficult for staff… who are not child protection specialists, to safeguard children where parents are not only culpably neglectful but are also deliberately untruthful, evasive and manipulating of visiting health professionals. The review shows that the style and level of intervention that was provided to this family was not strong enough to break through the facade created by the parents.”
More than 30 recommendations were made. While the health trust declined to comment beyond the summary findings, Jayne Ludlam, who became director of children’s specialist services a month after Tiffany’s death, said, ”Nobody came out of this sparkling and fantastic.” She conceded that having unqualified staff manning phones and making crucial decisions about referrals had been wrong. In October 2006, when the midwife had called about Tiffany, the social work team at Sheffield had a 28% vacancy rate, with only 107 social workers on staff to cover 426 children on the child protection register and another 651 in care. This staffing shortage was one reason they had employed cheaper, unqualified staff. In the wake of Tiffany’s death, Ludlam’s department was overhauled and received a 21% increase in funding. “I hope to God this would never happen today,” Ludlam said. “I hope if a midwife rang in today, she would have a good discussion with a qualified social worker and together they’d agree the next steps.”
But Ludlam has a mountain to climb. Although the vacancy rate had dropped to 19% by late 2007 (the most recent figure they could provide), there are still only 128 social workers. An Ofsted inspection last August found that the service in Sheffield is still failing vulnerable children – since 2003, there have been seven case reviews into the death or injury of a vulnerable young child.
And what of the Addy Street community? Their lack of involvement in reporting the Hirsts or assisting Tiffany was, the case review concluded, “a matter of great regret”. The community of Upperthorpe had stuck its head in the sand.
Sabrina’s stepfather, Paul Bennett, had had a chance to intervene. He had spent a night on the sofa in August 2007, but later told police he had not noticed anything untoward in a place police found smeared in dog excrement, where a child was coughing and sobbing through the night. Brigitte, Sabrina’s mother, who had also got inside the flat, told police that, while it was “a mess”, her daughter had always been an untidy girl. Even when Tiffany began vomiting repeatedly while staying with Brigitte a few days before she died, she did not call a doctor, saying this was a decision for the child’s mother alone.
For DCI Powell, the symbol of how badly Tiffany was failed were the lilac flakes he had found in her bedroom, evidence he finally came to understand. Without toys or food, the three-year-old had resorted to licking or eating the paper from her wall, spending hours diligently picking it off in pieces, an entire arc cleared by her bed-head as she foraged; tiny scraps had been found stuck to her locked fists. And all the while she would have heard the drinkers down below, stamping and singing. People who now quietly admitted to each other, as they shuffled past the boarded-up pub, that they had long suspected things were going horribly wrong in the flat, recalling Sabrina’s failings and Rob’s absence, the couple’s incendiary arguments, their dirty, emaciated children, and how all of them had continued to drink the Hirsts’ beer and not said a word.
When Tiffany Wright’s body was finally released for funeral in March 2008, it was brought to Sheffield’s Grenoside Crematorium in a white coffin surrounded by floral tributes, including one spelling out Rob’s nickname for the girl he never really loved: “Nutmeg.” Sabrina was waiting, handcuffed, in the funeral parlour when the others mourners filed in. Afterwards, from her prison cell, she wrote, “When they carried Tiffany in, I wanted to take her away from them, hold her and never let go.” Unable to care for Tiffany in life, Sabrina took control of her daughter after her death. Instead of allowing Tiffany’s ashes to be buried, she insisted they be kept at the funeral parlour on Herries Road, a few streets from where she had grown up. There they will remain until Sabrina is freed, probably in 2014 after serving half her sentence. “I’ve gone past caring,” Sabrina said in her most recent letter. “I’ve got the most important thing in the whole world waiting for me when I get out and that’s Tiffany.”
• This article was amended on Monday 1 March 2010 to remove some family details