Probation Service 'not keeping women and children safe from offenders'

Women and children are still at risk because of Probation Service’s ‘insufficient’ management of dangerous offenders, coroner warns after Damien Bendall murdered mother and three children

  • Damien Bendall killed his partner and three children while high on cocaine
  •  READ MORE: FIFTY-ONE separate failures by the Probation Service detailed

Women and children are still at risk from violent offenders like sleepover killer Damien Bendall because of ‘insufficient’ checks carried out by the Probation Service, a coroner has said.

Cocaine-fuelled Damien Bendall killed his pregnant partner Terri Harris, 35, her children John Paul Bennett, 13, and Lacey Bennett, 11, alongside Lacey’s friend Connie Gent, 11, with a claw hammer in Killamarsh, Derbyshire in September 2021.

Depraved cage fighter and addict Bendall raped Lacey as she lay dying – then stole John Paul’s games console and took it to a dealer to exchange for drugs. He is serving a whole-life term for the murders.

Inquests into their deaths in October heard that 57 ‘very stark acts or omissions’ by the Probation Service and Capita PLC in Bendall’s case ‘accumulatively’ contributed to the tragedy. 

He had been graded as posing a low risk to partners and children – but told a Capita worker fitting an electronic tag that he would murder his partner and her children if the relationship ‘goes bad’. The comment went unreported.

Damien Bendall is serving a whole life term for murdering a mother, her two children and one of their friends in September 2021

Terri Harris, 35, and her son John Paul Bennett, 13, were killed by Damien Bendall, who bludgeoned them to death with a claw hammer

Bendall murdered Ms Harris’ daughter Lacey Bennett (left) and Connie Gent (right), both 11 – then raped Lacey as she lay dying from the injuries he inflicted

In a Prevention Of Future Death report published on Wednesday, senior coroner Peter Nieto said he remained unsure the service could clearly record information about dangerous offenders or that staff were adequately trained to deal with them. 

The Probation Service said that it had taken action to address the ‘unacceptable failings’ in the case.

In his report, Mr Nieto said: ‘Very concerning information regarding Damien Bendall was made known to the Probation Service (including violent assault and injury of a partner, and an incident of possible child sexual abuse).

‘But (this) was not recorded clearly or prominently for subsequent Probation Service practitioners to read and evaluate in risk assessment and decision-making, and indeed was not read at key and critical points.

READ MORE: Sleepover killer Damien Bendall was able to murder his pregnant girlfriend and her children after FIFTY-ONE separate failures by the Probation Service

‘The inquests identified that domestic abuse and child safeguarding checks were either insufficient or wholly lacking at various stages of Damien Bendall’s offender management.

‘The current evidence is that domestic abuse and child safeguarding checks remain generally insufficient or are not being done with consequent ongoing risks to children and women.

‘Insufficient or absent Probation Service domestic abuse and child safeguarding checks has been a theme of HM Inspectorate of Probation reports and reviews for at least the last five years.’

The inquests at Chesterfield Coroner’s Court heard that Bendall was managed by overworked and ‘very inexperienced’ probation staff despite having a history of serious and violent offending dating back to 2004.

Chilling audio was released after Bendall’s conviction of the 999 call he made after he beat his four victims to death, alongside video of his arrest in which he alluded to his previous offending.

In body-worn camera footage from an officer called to the scene, he can be heard saying: ‘I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to go prison. Again.’

His trial heard he had attacked his victims so viciously that he caved in their skulls. 

Connie was at the house where Lacey and John lived with their mother and Bendall for a sleepover on September 17 and asked if she could stay for a second night.

On the day of the depraved attacks, the children had put up a stall outside the house selling sweets to raise money for Cancer Research.

Police at the scene on Chandos Crescent, Killamarsh, Derbyshire, after Damien Bendall killed Terri Harris, John Paul and Lacey Bennett and Connie Gent

A sea of tributes was left at the scene after the news broke of the brutal slayings. An inquest has found systemic and individual failings allowed Bendall to kill

A picture issued by Derbyshire Police of Terri Harris with her children Lacey and John Paul

At the time of the murders, he was serving a suspended sentence for arson with a curfew requirement at Ms Harris’s home in Chandos Crescent, Killamarsh. 

But the probation officer who recommended the curfew in a pre-sentence report told the inquests she did not recall seeing previous assessments of his high risk, allegations of domestic abuse made by a former partner or concerns over his contact with a teenage girl.

As well as individual errors, Mr Nieto said staff used ‘confusing’ systems and that it remained unclear how to easily record information about offenders.

READ MORE: Mother wanted to use Clare’s Law to expose Damien Bendall’s violent past before he murdered her pregnant daughter and grandchildren – but was terrified it would endanger them 

He claimed safeguarding systems were ‘severely strained’ and questioned whether the Probation Service ‘is failing to grasp’ the importance of accurately completing safeguarding checks.

In all, 51 individual and systemic failings were found to have contributed to the circumstances that allowed Bendall to kill.

He said: ‘Evidence from senior Probation Service staff was to the effect that failing to undertake the checks and failure to make this explicitly clear in a pre-sentence report might be dealt with by management feedback to the Probation Service practitioner but is unlikely to be a disciplinary matter.

‘This leads me to question whether, given the potentially very disastrous outcomes in terms of public protection, the Probation Service is failing to grasp the seriousness of the issue, to make this explicit to Probation Service practitioners, and to ensure that there are commensurate penalties for staff where these professional duties have been breached.’

The report has been sent to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk, and the Chief Probation Officer, who have 56 days to respond outlining what action has been or will be taken to resolve the issues or explain why action will not be taken.

A Probation Service spokesman said: ‘These were unthinkable crimes and our thoughts remain with the families of Terri Harris, John Paul and Lacey Bennett and Connie Gent.

‘We have taken action to address the unacceptable failings in this case, including mandating domestic abuse and child safeguarding checks, recruiting thousands more probation officers, and improving information-sharing.

‘We are also reviewing our next steps in light of the coroner’s findings to ensure we are taking every action to keep the public safe.’

Damien Bendall pictured buying cigarettes shortly after beating his victims to death with a claw hammer

The semi-detached house in Chandos Crescent (pictured) was boarded up after the murders

The local council later made the decision to demolish the dwellings after the residents of the adjoining house asked to leave

The report has also been addressed to Capita PLC after a staff member failed to report a comment made by Bendall as they were fitting his electronic curfew tag that he would murder his partner and the children if the relationship ‘goes bad’.

It has also been sent to the Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust after no record was made of Bendall missing at least four alcohol and drug misuse appointments prior to the murders, despite them being a condition of his suspended sentence.

After the inquests concluded, Ms Harris’ parents Angela Smith and Lawrence Harris released a statement through their solicitor condemning the Probation Service for its failings.

They said: ‘The probation service failed to protect and keep our family safe – they are now gone, this must never happen again.’

The house was later demolished after tenants in the adjoining pebble-dash semi-detached home asked to leave, with plans to create a memorial garden to Bendall’s victims.

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