This week, Surender Mehrok was sentenced to seven years and nine months in prison after he was convicted of the manslaughter of Richard Royal Uddin, a 14-week-old baby who was left in his care for a short period of time. Now the criminal court case has concluded, a Weekend Herald investigation which gathered court and police documents can reveal "unacceptable" mistakes made by Child Youth and Family Services (now known as Oranga Tamariki) in the weeks shortly before Baby Royal's death, as well as the fact two juries considering the murder charge never knew Mehrok had assaulted other children in his case. Jared Savage reports.
"Unacceptable" errors meant social workers failed to check on a 3-month-old baby when concerns were raised about his welfare, just weeks before the little boy suffered horrific head injuries in a fatal assault.
The breaches of policy and practice at Child Youth and Family, which is now known as Oranga Tamariki, included a supervisor downgrading the priority of the case as the seven-day deadline for visiting the home after the "report of concern" had already passed.
By marking the case as less urgent, the CYFS office in Tauranga circumvented the "red flag" system in place and avoided a negative rating for poor performance.
Instead, the case was given to a student social worker on placement who called the baby's grandmother in Whanganui.
They discussed the parenting skills of the baby's mother and the possibility of placing the boy into his grandmother's care, if necessary, after a safety check of the home.
The CYFS visit never happened. The next day the trainee social worker was on study leave, that was followed by the weekend, and Monday was a public holiday.
The following day, Richard Royal Uddin was declared dead in Tauranga Hospital with severe skull fractures described by one medical expert as being "cracked like an egg", akin to injuries suffered in a high-speed car crash.
Baby Royal, as he was called, was in the care of Surender Singh Mehrok at the time on the evening of June 7, 2016. Mehrok, 19, was in a casual relationship with the baby's mother, who had split from Baby Royal's father.
This week, Mehrok was sentenced to seven years and nine months in prison after being convicted of manslaughter at a second trial, after his original conviction for murder was quashed.
Now the court case is over, a Weekend Herald investigation into the death of Baby Royal can reveal:
• The downgrading of the urgency of Baby Royal's "Report of Concern", which an Oranga Tamariki manager describes as "unacceptable".
• A witness saw Mehrok slap another young child just five months before Baby Royal's death. She made a "Report of Concern" to CYFS and a social worker visited the home the next day. Detectives also investigated and an arrest warrant was issued, but police were unable to find Mehrok.
• When Mehrok was later prosecuted for the murder of Baby Royal, he was also charged with assaulting three other young children living in the same house. But the jurors in each of his trials were never told about this evidence.
The death of Baby Royal is now being investigated by a coroner, who may decide to hold a full inquest to determine the circumstances leading up to the fatal assault.
"The death of this young boy in 2016 was incredibly sad, and I want to acknowledge the grief of Richard's family," said Tasi Malu, the Oranga Tamariki regional manager for the Bay of Plenty.
'Key opportunities' missed
How social workers assess the risk posed to a child's safety changed when CYFS became Oranga Tamariki in 2017, but Malu said it was important to learn what could have been done differently for Baby Royal.
A CYFS review of the circumstances found policy and practice guidelines were not followed, which Malu said led to "key opportunities" being missed.
"If Richard's vulnerability had been recognised sooner, he would have been seen by a social worker and his safety assessed," Malu said.
"This may not have prevented his death, but even with the advantage of hindsight this was unacceptable."
The decision to downgrade the response to the Report of Concern made on 20 May 2016 - less than three weeks before Baby Royal's death - was also not acceptable practice, Malu said.
"A 20-day time frame would have only been appropriate if there was no immediate risk to Richard's safety and he was getting support and monitoring in the home."
The "report of concern" on May 20, 2016 was made by Baby Royal's father, Nasir Uddin, who was separated from the infant's mother, Nikita Winiata.
She had called Uddin "about 20 times" around 1am, according to his police statement, and he could hear his son crying in the background. Uddin thought Winiata was drunk and was sufficiently concerned to immediately call CYFS.
Winiata told the Weekend Herald she did not abuse alcohol or drugs after Baby Royal was born, but did after his death to numb her pain.
At first, Uddin's "report of concern" on a Friday morning was given a low priority and printed out for assessment at the Tauranga office on the following Monday.
Over the weekend, the national office upgraded the report to a "Child and Family Assessment" (CFA), which requires a home visit within seven days.
But because the original report was already printed out, the Tauranga office was unaware the priority had changed and needed greater urgency.
When they assessed the "report of concern" on the following Monday, the Tauranga supervisors independently came to the conclusion they needed to upgrade to a CFA seven-day response.
However, there was confusion over Baby Royal's address. Another seven days passed before CYFS confirmed the correct address with WINZ.
The following day, May 31, 2016, the supervisor downgraded the case because the seven-day timeframe had been missed.
Instead, the report was handed to a student social worker on placement to call Baby Royal's father.
Two days later, she called Uddin as well as Winiata's mother, who lived in Whanganui. They discussed the possibility of uplifting Baby Royal from his mother, and whether the infant could live with his grandmother in Whanganui.
Notes of the conversation on the CYFS file indicate the trainee social worker planned to arrange a home visit and risk assessment for Baby Royal.
It never happened. The next day, a Friday, the junior social worker was on study leave and her supervisor didn't follow up.
No action was taken over the weekend, the Monday was the public holiday of Queen's Birthday, and CYFS staff forgot to discuss the case when the office opened on Tuesday morning.
By the end of the day, Baby Royal was dead.
Downgrading the "report of concern" made on May 20, 2016 after failing to meet the seven-day timeframe had the effect of avoiding a poor rating on the CYFS performance monitoring system.
Tasi Malu said one of the first things which changed when CYFS became Oranga Tamariki in 2017 was the immediate end to the old "traffic lights" system.
"The emphasis is on early and accurate identification of children and young people whose safety and needs are best addressed through the child protection system.
He said social workers are also now encouraged to be more flexible and engage earlier with families, pointing out the introduction of hui-a-whānau meetings where concerns can be addressed and support arranged.
An extra 401 social workers had been hired over the past three years, Malu said, which meant average caseload numbers had dropped from 31 to 21 children.
The death of Richard Royal Uddin is now the subject of a coronial inquiry to investigate the wider circumstances. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice was unable to confirm yesterday whether a full inquest will be held.
The coronial process can start now that Surender Mehrok's criminal case finally ended this week, after more than four years of court hearings.
He was left to take care of Baby Royal on the evening of June 7, 2016 while the infant's mother, Nikita Winiata, went out to pick up pizza. She returned 30 minutes later to find her baby lifeless.
During that time, Mehrok was unable to settle the crying baby and the fatal assault took place.
No one is entirely sure what happened, but Baby Royal suffered massive skull fractures akin to a high-speed car crash or being dropped from a multi-storey building.
The Crown argued the injuries were caused by multiple blows, while the defence argued it was a single action.
Mehrok admitted inflicting the fatal injuries but claimed he reacted impulsively, rather than intentionally.
But he was found guilty of murder in 2017 and sentenced to serve at least 14 years and six months of a mandatory life sentence.
This conviction was later quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2019 and Mehrok was acquitted of murder at his retrial in August.
The second jury found Mehrok guilty of manslaughter and this week Justice Christine Gordon sentenced him to seven years and nine months in prison.
She ruled he must serve half of the sentence before being eligible for parole, which he has already completed since he has been in custody since Baby Royal's death in June 2016.
However, Mehrok will stay behind bars for the foreseeable future. His visa has expired and he will be deported to India on his release from prison, but he cannot travel back because of Covid-19 restrictions.
What the jury didn't know
The Weekend Herald can now report that Mehrok was also charged with assaults against three other children living in the same house as Baby Royal - although the juries in each of the murder trials were unaware of this.
The assaults consisted of frequent slaps around the face, back and head of the children aged 5, 3 and 2.
The Crown wanted to prosecute all the alleged offences together in a single trial, arguing the assaults were propensity evidence which showed Mehrok used physical violence when frustrated by children in his care.
The Court of Appeal disagreed and ruled the assault charges should be separated from the murder charge. In the opinion of the three-judge panel, the evidence of the assaults was more likely to prejudice the jury against Mehrok than be of value in proving the murder charge.
After he was convicted in the first murder trial in 2018, Mehrok pleaded guilty to the assault charges and was sentenced in the Tauranga District Court to five months in prison.
"He acted as an impatient babysitter, abusing a position of trust and showing no self-discipline when it came to the perceived unruliness of young children," Judge Paul Mabey QC said.
The jury in the retrial - after his murder conviction was quashed in 2019 - were also unaware of the assault convictions, which can be revealed only now that suppression orders lapsed this week.
As well as the failures of CYFS in responding to the "report of concern" about Baby Royal in May 2016, court documents released to the Weekend Herald show another potential opportunity for authorities to intervene in the dysfunctional household before his death.
Most of the assaults on the three other children in the house were uncovered during the course of the homicide investigation in June 2016.
But in one case, CYFS and the police were aware Mehrok allegedly slapped one of the children five months before Baby Royal's death.
A woman walking along 19th Avenue in Tauranga saw a 2-year-old run onto the road and be nearly hit by a car. She grabbed the child and led him down the driveway to his home, until a young man came out to meet them.
"He walked up and grabbed the younger of the two children by the arm and yanked him away from me," the woman told police.
"He then hit him in the head with an open hand."
The woman called Child Youth and Family, who visited the home the next day and alerted the police.
A detective was assigned to investigate and an arrest warrant was issued for Surender Mehrok.
However, the police never managed to find him, despite their best efforts.
"We made a number of inquiries to try and arrest him. But we kept hitting brick walls at every address we doorknocked, which happens when you're trying to find an illegal immigrant," said Greg Turner, who was in charge of the Tauranga CIB until his recent retirement.
"We kept getting cold shouldered around town, given the round around. It's a tragic case, but I'm comfortable we did everything we could do."
A mother's anguish
Baby Royal's parents Nikita Winiata and Nasir Uddin have since reconciled in Tauranga and have two more children together in Tauranga.
Winiata told the Weekend Herald she was re-traumatised by going through a second trial and devastated by the jury's decision to convict Mehrok of manslaughter instead of murder.
"He'll get deported back to see his family, see his mother, see his brothers and sisters. I'll never get to see my baby again. My other children only have photos and his clothes [to remember him by]. That's all we've got."
She was unaware of Nasir Uddin's call to CYFS before Baby Royal's death and denied drinking and partying after Baby Royal was born, although she did spiral into drug and alcohol abuse after his death to numb the pain.
"If it wasn't for my other children, I wouldn't be here now. I would be locked up or six feet under."
At the time she left Baby Royal in the care of Mehrok, Winiata said she was unaware he was wanted by police for assaulting another child living in the house.
"If I knew he was hitting those kids, I never would have left him alone. I would have packed up our bags and left."