I joined the children’s workforce in 1976 soon after newly formed social services departments introduced generic social work, approved schools were closed, observation and assessment centres were the new elite and children in family group homes were moved to family placements. The Children Act received Royal Assent on 16 November 1989, an alleged epidemic of child abuse swept the country, and by the end of the Twentieth Century residential childcare was on trial.
The story first started to unfold in public view in 1989 when allegations of abuse were made by 57 residents and former residents against Ralph Morris the proprietor of Castle Hill School in Ludlow and investigations in Staffordshire, North Wales and Leicestershire followed. My husband and I fostered a boy who had been placed at Castle Hill in the early 1980’s, I visited him at the school with his social worker and met Morris the same day. When news of the allegations reached the media, I did not doubt they were true, there was just something about him that had struck me as fake… just not quite right. Much like my first impressions of the deputy children’s resource centre manager I inherited when I worked for a large local authority in the Northwest. He was using his work computer to write letters requesting porn from contact magazines that he kept in his filing cabinet alongside photographs of unrelated women and children and carrier bags stuffed with letters from debt collectors, refused loan applications, county court summons and bank statements that revealed he was stealing from public funds. After realising he’d been found out he fled, but justice caught up with him and he eventually served time for his crimes. As did Morris who was convicted and sentenced to 12 years on 12th April 1991. Fortunately, our foster son did not witness or experience any abuse during his short time at the school although he knows others now in their fifties who did and have suffered the affects ever since.
By the beginning of the new millennium well over 100 care workers had been prosecuted and more than ninety police trawling operations resulted in at least one thousand investigations into individual children’s homes across the country. For those who may not know, trawling is a questionable approach used by the police investigating historical abuse that begins with a suspect or an allegation and ends with the discovery of crimes not previously reported. Whilst many of these complaints are undeniably true and have helped convict workers who unforgivably betrayed the trust placed in them, not all care workers were abusing children and some allegations were fabricated and resulted in serious miscarriages of justice. Indeed, the police in Northumbria who launched Operation Rose in 1997 were accused of ruining the lives of staff and wasting millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money. This three-year investigation led to 32 people being charged with 142 offences, of these six were found guilty and received custodial sentences totalling 25 years, one other pleaded guilty, and four suspects died prior to trial. Without doubt the participation of field social workers and child protection workers in these operations ensured that a number of guilty people were convicted. But according to the late Richard Webster, the British author who suggested hysteria lay behind some abuse scandals, social workers were also significant in unleashing a witch hunt of extreme proportions upon residential workers who they treated like the poor relations. Careers were lost and lives were shattered as journalists led the way to the false belief that children’s homes are synonymous with abuse and care workers cannot be trusted which has nurtured prejudice, made scapegoats of many and influenced legislation and policy ever since.
Remarkably the rampant onslaught of child sexual exploitation in the same period did not attract the same media interest until revelations of an estimated 1,500 victims in Rotherham sparked a national scandal over a decade later. Only then did the public learn that Rochdale sexual health worker Sara Botham had made more than 180 attempts between 2003 and 2014 to alert police and social services to patterns of sexual abuse but was told the witnesses were unreliable. This was a heinous crime against children on a scale not previously seen but sadly all too often the police viewed it as a crime against undesirables… a lifestyle choice. Children as young as 11 were deemed to be having consensual sexual intercourse when in fact they were being raped and abused by adults according to the findings of Alexis Jay OBE who chaired the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997-2013. The report describes how one mother was assessed by a social worker as not able to accept her 12 years old daughter was growing up when she voiced her concern about her being sexually active, going missing and getting drunk with older males. In another example a child who was just 13 when she was groomed by a violent sexual predator, raped and trafficked was blamed by social workers for ‘placing herself at risk of sexual exploitation and danger. Staff in children’s homes are described as powerless to stop older children introducing younger more vulnerable children to predatory adult males and most disturbingly the report reveals that 15 years after concerns were first being raised by care workers in children’s homes Ofsted rated safeguarding services in Rotherham as adequate in their overall effectiveness and capacity for improvement in 2010.
My own experience of caring for victims of child sexual exploitation during this time leaves me with no uncertainty that the police generally believed these girls were wasting police time and care workers were not doing their job properly. Regrettably this was a belief that social workers were only too willing to accept but belief is not fact. In reality, many care workers were putting themselves at risk in their efforts to keep victims safe by following men who brazenly picked up children in cars from the front doors of children’s homes and gathering vital evidence from number plates and mobile phone numbers to names and descriptions of perpetrators to assist police with the detection of these criminals. Staff working 24 hour shifts regularly stayed up all night walking the streets looking for missing children or waiting for them to come home all too often still under the influence of unknown substances and smelling of alcohol and sex. Or sitting in hospital waiting rooms with self-harming and suicidal children, those waiting for invasive forensic medical examinations and frightened young mums about to give birth. Days were spent trying to bring normality back into the lives of these severely traumatised children and all too often fielding criticism.
Then as the second decade of the new millennium got underway, we witnessed thousands of people rioting in cities and towns across England and five people lost their lives. Two years before this Harriet Sergeant, a journalist, author and Research Fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies had published an article in the Daily Mail about how young boys abandoned by their parents and betrayed by schools were turning to criminal gangs for protection and a sense of belonging. At the time she was researching a report on why so many black Caribbean and white working class boys are failing and as the first anniversary of the riots approached ‘Among the Hoods’ the story of her friendship with a teenage gang was published on 3rd July 2012. It describes a three year journey that took her from job centres and the care system to prison and failing schools as she tried to change their lives. Sadly, there is no fairy tale ending and the book ends with the gang leader and two other gang members are in prison, one is in psychiatric hospital and one appears to be a successful criminal.
By the end of the decade knife crime hit a ten year high with almost 22,300 knife and weapon offences recorded and children as young as 11 were being used to deal heroin and crack cocaine by ‘County Lines’ a multi-million pounds industry linked to murder and sexual abuse. Against this backdrop it will likely not come as a surprise that the number of children in care has risen dramatically. There are now 20,000 more children in care than in 2009, a significant number coming into care are over 16 and now account for almost a quarter of the total number of children in care. For these teenagers this is often too little too late as not only are they vulnerable to sexual exploitation, running away, gangs, trafficking and drug misuse as warned by the children’s commissioner, many are already drug addicted, knife carrying, pimp controlled victims of neglect, abuse and exploitation and the impact of this is manifest in high risk behaviour, acute vulnerability and rejection of the care available. This is evident the number of placement breakdowns in foster homes and children’s homes, the increased use of lawful supported accommodation that was neither designed or, equipped for this purpose and the emergence of unregistered children’s homes provided illegally and used unlawfully by local authorities.
It is little wonder that the care system is buckling under the sheer weight of numbers and this is not the time to waste effort on recrimination, it is time to press pause on the blame game and work collaboratively and respectfully to find solutions.
This must begin with acceptance that we have been letting our children down for years and acknowledgement that harmful and dangerous people gain access to the children’s workforce, wreak havoc and cause reprehensible harm. I’ve met some over the past four decades during my own journey through public, voluntary and private sector care. Part of the problem is that measures introduced were not fool proof in the first place and have since then been rendered even less affective by GDPR with many previous employers now only willing to confirm start-finish dates in references and DBS checks do not reveal undetected crimes or help to predict who will commit the next offence.
Indeed, none of these processes prevented former children’s nurse, and NHS manager Carl Beech from becoming a school governor or working as a volunteer for the NSPCC. Following his conviction for perverting the course of justice on 22 July 2019 the NSPCC were keen to confirm its volunteers are subject to the most strenuous and thorough safeguarding checks. But it has to be said these did not prevent Beech whose false claims of abuse were initially described as “credible and true” by police, from joining the NSPCC in 2012 as a volunteer to deliver ‘Speak Out Stay Safe’ workshops in schools to children as young as five. He resigned and handed back his ID only after being charged with four counts of making indecent photographs of children, one count of possessing indecent images of children and one count of voyeurism in June 2017. At the time this case raised concern about the role of journalists who wrote the stories over two years, alleging a powerful group of men from the British establishment had raped and murdered children between 1975 and 1984. But no action was taken against them and regrettably some journalists still compete for market share and prominence by unleashing embellished reports on the court of public opinion of which Teens in unregulated homes face ‘organised abuse’. How did children’s homes become centres of profit making and abuse? and Privatising children’s homes is playing into the hands of the abusers are but a few. I am not saying these reports are completely untrue, there are without question elements of truth in them all, but all too often truth is being distorted to serve a particular agenda. 30 years ago, poor journalism, unleashed a witch hunt on children’s social care with dire consequences for children, caregivers, families and society. Since then the media has pointed the finger of blame at police and social workers for not recognising and preventing the organised sexual exploitation of thousands of children, parents and teachers for the rise in knife crime and teenage gangs and most recently private sector children’s homes and supported accommodation for exposing children to abuse which has spearheaded a campaign for tighter controls and more regulation.
What the media is not reporting is that on closer examination increased demand and regulation are the main factors driving the increased use of supported accommodation and unregistered children’s homes. Or that that lawfully, provided, responsibly commissioned and quality assured supported accommodation has been in use for 20 years, that private sector children’s homes are not all operated by large private equity backed children’s homes companies, many are owner led small companies that are being adversely affected by unfair regulatory processes. Or that the poor quality and illegal services for would not exist if local authorities did not feel an acute need to use these services and were not paying for them.
The challenge of protecting vulnerable children from dangerous adults has never been greater and in my experience informed opinion this is definitely not the time for more reactive policy making driven by a media led blame culture that has dominated children’s social care for almost half a century.