‘Error of judgment’ in probation supervision of Damien Bendall, inquest hears

Damien Bendall was being supervised by an inexperienced probation officer when he murdered his partner and three children.

A senior probation officer has told inquests into the deaths of the victims of Damien Bendall that errors were made in the handling of the case, but this was for “very, very justified reasons”.

Tracey Hume told Chesterfield Coroner’s Court that Bendall’s case was one of 350 she had to oversee when she allocated it to a probation officer with just six months experience.

She did not accept the suggestion that allocating Bendall’s supervision to her junior colleague, Aisha Fatima, was a poor decision based on what she knew at the time, but said the decision not to reallocate it when clear evidence later emerged that Bendall posed a high risk was an “error of judgment”.

Bendall, 33, was given a whole life order last year for murdering 35-year-old Terri Harris, her children, 13-year-old John Paul Bennett and 11-year-old Lacey Bennett, and Lacey’s friend, 11-year-old Connie Gent, in September 2021.

When asked by Kirsten Heaven, representing Ms Harris’ parents, Angela Smith and Lawrence Harris, whether her “lack of professional curiosity” constituted an “egregious failure”, Ms Hume said: “I think with the circumstances I can’t say it was egregious.

“I can say it was an error of judgment under the circumstances I was working under. I was trying to juggle everything.”

She later said: “While I’m not trying to be defensive and say it was not egregious, what I’m trying to say is I cannot manage or micromanage 350 cases.

“So while yes, I appreciate there were errors, I’m just saying there were very, very justified reasons as to why I did not see all of these at the time.”

Weeks before the killings in June 2021, Bendall had been given a suspended sentence for an unrelated arson offence, after being incorrectly categorised as posing a low risk to partners and children and a medium risk to the public, by a different probation officer.

Chesterfield Coroner's Court
The inquests are being held at Chesterfield Coroner’s Court, at Chesterfield Town Hall (Callum Parke/PA)

As part of that sentence, Bendall was given a five-month curfew requirement at Ms Harris’s address in Chandos Crescent, Killamarsh, Derbyshire, and his case was allocated to Ms Fatima by Ms Hume.

The inquests had previously heard that Ms Fatima had very little experience in the criminal justice system and could only handle low-risk offenders, but when asked if this decision was a mistake based on what she knew at the time, Ms Hume replied: “I don’t believe that at all.”

However, the court heard that Ms Hume and her colleagues became aware of Bendall’s violent past, which included convictions for several serious offences dating back to 2004, as early as July 6 2021.

There was also information available suggesting that Bendall had reported himself as showing sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies and that he was using both alcohol and drugs while living with Ms Harris, Lacey and John Paul, but Ms Hume admitted she never actively sought this information.

Terri Harris (centre) with her children, Lacey and John Paul Bennett (Derbyshire Constabulary/PA)
Terri Harris (centre) with her children, Lacey and John Paul Bennett (Derbyshire Constabulary/PA)

No effort was made to speak to Ms Harris by either the authors of the pre-sentence report or those who supervised Bendall after sentencing, with Ms Hume admitting it was also an error not to prompt Ms Fatima to attempt to contact Ms Harris.

Furthermore, Ms Hume acknowledged there were “missed opportunities” to discover that Bendall had previously been accused of domestic violence.

A subsequent report into Bendall’s case by the Inspectorate of Probation highlighted a litany of failures and singled out Ms Hume’s allocation decision as “another example of poor allocation practice to add to the other serious issues” that were identified.

But Ms Hume had told the Inspectorate that staff were put under “impossible pressure” and told the inquests that high workloads prevented her from fulfilling the oversight requirements of her role.

She said: “In the circumstances that we were under, in the type of absolute pressure on everybody, I did every single thing that I could for this case and every single one of my cases.

“At that time I had 350 cases that I was overseeing through the people I managed. I did everything I could.

“It was not possible to do absolutely everything on the list of things we needed to do.”

The inquests continue.

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