Disabled toddler drowned when left unsupervised, inquest hears

Disabled 16-month-old toddler who ‘had only just learned to stand’ drowned in a rainwater trough when he was left unsupervised in garden of foster carer’s home, inquest hears

  • Thomas Branchflower was found face down in rain trough at foster carer’s home
  • Thomas, aged 16 months, had a cognitive disability which impaired development
  • Inquest heard boy was left with 13-year-old while foster mother checked emails
  • Foster mother found him alone and attempted resuscitation while calling medics
  • Thomas died from drowning in Bristol Children’s Hospital’s ICU five days later

A disabled 16-month-old toddler who had just learned to stand up drowned in a water trough when he was left unsupervised in the garden of his foster family’s home, an inquest has found.

Thomas Branchflower was found unresponsive in the metal container at the Williton, Somerset home on July 27 last year and died in hospital five days later.

His foster mother said she was ‘kept awake at night’ by regret at not having emptied the open-top tank of water as his mobility improved.

The potential danger was missed during eight previous inspections of the home because during the winter months because it was empty, the inquest heard. 

Thomas had a cognitive disability which delayed his development and impaired his vision, which is why he was in professional foster care.

At the time of his death, he was unable to walk, but had recently learned to pull himself up to standing briefly, Somerset coroner Tony Williams told the hearing.

On that day, his foster mother went inside the house to check her emails, leaving Thomas in the garden with her 13-year-old daughter.

Thomas Branchflower, aged sixteen months, was found unresponsive and face down in the rain trough at his foster carer’s home last July. He died in hospital five days later from drowning

She did not hear her daughter coming in, and when the foster mother went back out into the garden after 5pm, she could not see the toddler.

After searching for him, she found him face-down in the trough.

‘She scooped him up and turned him around. He was cold and wet and white,’ the coroner said.

The foster mother, who is a nurse, gave him rescue breaths as she called emergency services.

Thomas was taken to Bristol Children’s Hospital’s intensive care unit, where his condition deteriorated and he died on August 1.

The cause of death was ‘hypoxic ischaemic brain injury secondary to drowning’, Mr Williams said. The foster mother was ‘desperate for him to live’.

In her evidence statement, read out by the coroner, she said: ‘We knew Thomas was pulling up, standing, but he wasn’t standing for any length of time. He was coming up but going down again.

‘We said we need to get that trough empty… and that’s the regret that keeps me awake at night.

Thomas with his mother, Tanya, who said he was ‘very much loved and adored by his parents’

‘We just needed to do it and this would not have happened.’

Thomas had ‘brought joy’ to the foster family, she said.

The child was not adequately supervised and should not have been left alone other than when asleep, the inquiry was told.

The inquiry also heard told that the trough should also have been recognised as a possible danger.

In his narrative conclusion, the coroner said: ‘I don’t feel that that would do justice to just refer to this being an accident.

‘We might say in general terms it was an accident – nobody intended it to happen…

‘Prior to Thomas Branchflower’s placement, the fostering process had not identified the trough as a potential hazard.

‘At the time of Thomas’ fall into the water-filled trough, Thomas was not being supervised’.

Bristol Royal Children’s Hospital, where Thomas died days after he was pulled from the trough 

In November last year, Thomas’s mother Tanya Branchflower said he was ‘very much loved and adored by us his parents’.

Sheridan Farrow, Thomas’s grandmother, said Thomas had been ‘happy and healthy’ despite the condition, which delayed his physical development.  

Somerset County Council subsequently carried out an independent investigation.

Trish Lyons, who carried out the review, found the authority met the national minimum standard for fostering in all respects other than in health and safety risks.

But she said a household risk assessment had been recorded that the home did not have any water features.

This was because it was carried out during the winter when it was dry.

She said there was ‘no mention’ of the trough in eight health and safety visits that were carried out.

She added: ‘There was also a lot of ongoing contact during the months he was at the home but there were no discussions of health and safety issues.’

She said in a report from February 2020 it was also noted at the time that ‘Thomas required more than good care and should not be left alone other than when asleep.’

‘The purpose should be to look at the premises from an objective perspective but the potential risk of the container in the summer months was not identified,’ she added.

‘In the summer it may have had water but the potential for this was not raised as an issue by any of the reports.

‘With the benefit of hindsight we have an opportunity to stress the potential risks associated with water and drowning and accident prevention in general.

‘There were omissions in the oversight to the suitability of the home.’

Representatives from Somerset County Council told the inquest that changes had been made to its procedures in this area.

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