Probation officers who worked on the case of a violent offender before he murdered three children and his pregnant girlfriend have told an inquest their workload was “overwhelming” when they were managing him.
Damien Bendall, 33, is serving a whole-life order for the murders of Terri Harris, 35, her daughter Lacey Bennett, 11, her son John Paul Bennett, 13, and Lacey’s friend Connie Gent, 11, after he attacked them with a claw hammer at their home in Killamarsh, Derbyshire.
He also admitted raping Lacey Bennett.
Inquests into the deaths of Ms Harris, her children and Connie Gent, began at Chesterfield Coroner’s Court on Monday and will seek to understand how Bendall, who had a history of serious and violent offences dating back to 2004, was classed as posing a low risk of serious harm to partners and children.
Chief inspector of probation Justin Russell previously said the Probation Service’s handling of Bendall was of an “unacceptable standard” at every stage and “critical opportunities” to correct errors were missed.
Probation officer Matt Read, who worked at the Swindon office between May 2016 and April 2017, said he moved to the branch to help out because they had staffing and recruitment issues.
Mr Read told the inquest how an ex-partner of Bendall had made allegations of domestic abuse against him, but this could not be recorded in the offender assessment system, known as OASys, because it is a document that is seen by the offender and it could put the woman at risk.
There was, Mr Read said, a “closed” area where the information could be recorded without being seen by the offender – but that information was not seen by a probation officer who took over his case between June 2018 and July 2019.
Probation officer Rebecca Thomas said she was not aware that an ex-partner had made allegations of domestic abuse and therefore she assessed him as being at a medium risk of violence in relationships and a low risk to children.
She told the inquest she took over Bendall’s case from another probation officer who had gone on long-term sick leave.
Describing how she got up to speed on Bendall’s case when she took it over, Ms Thomas said she would have looked at previous OASys reports minutes from multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA) meetings and any other logs they had.
She said she “couldn’t recall” if she had checked the “closed” area, but said if she had seen the information, she would not have recorded that Bendall posed no risk of domestic violence. She said “when you are just trying to keep up, being able to remember to do everything is very difficult”.
Ms Thomas told the inquest that at one point while working at the Swindon probation office, she was working at 170% capacity.
She said: “I moved to the Swindon office from another as an agency member of staff and was given a number of cases to manage. Bendall was part of my caseload.
“From what I can recall, from day one these were the cases highlighted for us and we had to run with them.
“It felt overwhelming at times in Swindon. I had case loads in two offices. I was very stretched for roughly a month because I wanted to do a good handover for my colleagues.
“My time in the Swindon office, the case loads were very high. It affected my stress levels.”
When Ms Thomas took over management of Bendall’s case, he was in prison for assaulting a prison officer.
She said at the time, he was assessed as a risk to prison staff, because of the attack, and a risk to the public because of the armed robbery he had previously carried out.
Ms Thomas told the inquest “in an ideal world” she would have had time to look over two years’ worth of assessments on Bendall, but she could not because of her workload.
She explained how, during a conversation with Bendall, he told her about the “rule system” he lives by and expressed “ill feeling” towards an ex-partner.
She said: “He said he had felt betrayed because he lived by a set of rules and those rules keep him safe and she has done something where she later revealed his location and that was a breach of trust and he chose to end the relationship.
“There were concerns about how his behaviour would play out in a relationship.
“He said there was no ill feeling but I had concerns that he tried to portray an authoritative demeanour.
“I acknowledged that while he might not directly do something to harm a partner, he could ask someone else to do something, perhaps by intimidation.
“His very strong attitude was that violence to females was not okay but I caveated that in that he may feel it was okay if someone else was instructed to do that.
“I was not aware if he had been violent to someone in a relationship before.”
When asked if Ms Thomas’s assessment of Bendall would have changed if she had known about the domestic violence report that was previously made to Mr Read, she said: “I have thought about this a lot.
“It would have added more robustness to my assessment but because it was information from a previous partner, it would have been challenging to discuss it with Bendall unless the ex-partner was okay with it, because of the risks to her.
“I probably would have still said he was a medium risk to partners but it may have prompted me to do some digging with other agencies to see if I could get more information.”
When asked to explain why Bendall was categorised as a low risk to children, she said it was because only specific children tend to be named in their assessments, and she was not aware that he was in a relationship with anyone who had children.
She said: “We were not aware he was in a relationship with anyone with children, so the risk was low.
“But if he entered a relationship where there were children, we would detail that in our assessment.”
Michael Wall, a lawyer representing Connie Gent’s father Charles, asked Ms Thomas if this could be perceived by other probation officers as Bendall posing no risk to any children.
She replied: “I can’t answer for other officers, but I don’t think my style of assessing that risk is abnormal.
“Specifically, there were no children he was posing a risk to so that’s why it was low.
“[Other probation officers] would have to do their own assessment. They may be guided by previous reports, but you aren’t supposed to copy them, you have to assess them yourself.
“The previous OASys reports hadn’t identified a risk to partners, but I put that in my report because of what he had told me during conversations.”
The inquest, expected to last two weeks, continues.