On the 28th September at an Islington Council Executive meeting, I received an apology from Islington Council Leader, Richard Watts. I was deeply moved by this because, after 27 years of campaigning, it was important for me to hear his acknowledgement of the crimes committed against children whilst in the care of Islington Council from the 70s to the 90s. This was the very first time that I had spoken at a council meeting. It was the first time I had not felt vilified by council officials. A former Islington social worker told the council that I had been truly scapegoated by managers at the time who had never been called to account.
I began to reflect about why I had spent so many years of my life alongside police, journalists, researchers and survivors, investigating the historic abuse of Islington children and yet there had been so little involvement or even concern from the vast majority of my former social work colleagues. I also thought much about when I was employed in Islington, first in 1973 and later in 1986, because I was one of the social workers who placed children into the homes where they were abused. I had imagined and assumed that the systems were safe. I still do not understand fully how or why I slowly began to take an unchartered leap into the child’s world of horrors, to see through the pretence, recognise some of the carers as abusers and the managers who were complicit but also have the confidence to think I could do something about it.
At this Islington Council Executive Meeting, Cllr Watts, gave a public admission of Islington Council’s culpability for the abuse of children in the children’s homes. He also apologised to survivors and their supporters who were present stating that, ‘We recognise that those who were abused continue to suffer today. This is a heartfelt apology in recognition of the scale of the hurt that was caused and continues to be felt. We will work with survivors to improve support to people affected, and with the police to encourage them to pursue any new evidence of abuse’.
The meeting followed exposure by the Islington Gazette of former Mayor and Councillor Sandy Marks as having held pro-paedophile views. The council announced a QC – led inquiry into whether these views called into question the validity of the Report of the Inquiry into the management of childcare in the London Borough of Islington, 1995, as Marks was Chair of the Social Services Committee at the time. This report, often called the White Report, was based on 14 earlier inquiries following the Evening Standard articles which exposed the abuse in October 1992.
The Islington Gazette reported that, ‘as survivors told stories of “paralysing” abuse they suffered in care homes, Cllr Watts and other senior councillors and officers listened ashen faced. In one tense exchange, Cllr Watts was subjected to a cross examination from a survivor who repeatedly demanded: “Does the council admit culpability?” to which he eventually answered: “Yes. The council systemically failed people.” Cllr Watts apologised over what he called “the darkest chapter in the council’s history” and said, “We are desperately sorry. The council clearly did not do its best. There was systematic failure all the way through the council through all of those years. That was on the part of individual members of staff and the system collectively. It’s time now to put right the mistakes of the past and that’s what we’re starting to do this evening.’
Afterwards, one survivor told me that she couldn’t speak out but it didn’t matter as others had said everything she had wanted to say. Some women spoke quietly and with dignity recalling the little girls they once were, reliving what happened, ‘this assault happened like .. um .. every single day ..like over 4 years’. Cllr Watts advised her that she could go to the police but she said ‘I can’t go to the police. The police raped me’. Another survivor told her that he had reported crimes to the police from Operation Winter Key and that they had been very supportive to him. One survivor said he had a happy childhood and hadn’t been resident in a children’s home. He spoke instead of abuse on a holiday when he had been selected from a local school to go with the manager of an Islington children’s home. Another said, ‘I told my social worker and he never listened’. They all just spoke because they could from their hearts.
Cllr Watts listened, made eye contact and spoke sensitively. He answered their questions and never once interrupted them or went on the defensive. He told the survivors he would listen to them as long as it took. He made numerous apologies. All preparations had been made for the survivors, as we had requested, with provision of a quiet room with refreshments and minimal security in evidence.
I commented that it was 25 years almost to the day since the Evening Standard exposure of the child abuse scandal and this was my first opportunity to speak together with survivors at such a meeting. I spoke about denial at every level about the large networks of abuse and I emphasised that the new investigation must not replicate that denial. Cllr Watts responded to me saying; ‘Sorry to you on behalf of the council for the way in which the allegations you raised were handled. That’s part of the council’s failure historically.’
I said that when I raised the issues during the ’90s, as did the police, we clearly gave evidence about organised abuse networks within the borough but that all my work was completely rubbished by Ian White’s report. I acknowledged that we are in a different place from where we were in the ’90s but, ‘I just want to put it on the record that we are not going to stop. We are here for however long it takes. We want to see abusers convicted, and those who colluded removed from positions of influence. Some of them are now in very powerful, responsible positions.’
It was the survivors long awaited moment and they grasped it full on. 6 women who had been placed in Gisburne House sang their Gisburne song as they left the Town Hall – one, her arms outstretched, said to me ‘ Look Liz ‘, ‘Family – my family – I’ve found them’. There was no doubt that they had been through hell and back together.
As one of the co-ordinators of Islington Survivors Network over the last 18 months I have heard from 70 survivors. They were in care between the 60s and 90s in 23 different Islington children’s homes and foster placements as well as placements in secure units and boarding schools. They come forward via the website but mainly person to person through handing out our Islington Survivors Network cards in their communities. Wherever possible we see them and apply for their files. This is not an easy process as the files are often missing or have major gaps – often omitting years of a child’s life in specific homes. Some then go on to meet with lawyers and police. We have had some progress. Islington Council appointed a social worker and have commissioned a dedicated counselling service. Some survivors have been rehoused as the council now recognises their right to housing as care leavers.
It is important to provide some balance to flawed opinions being promoted in social work about ‘moral panics’ which include ideas of professional ‘over-intervention’ in children’s lives and allegations that many accounts of paedophilia are grossly exaggerated. Some social work academics are even writing in disgraceful and crude terms about the ‘monster’ of child protection. By citing the voices of the Islington survivors who so desperately needed intervention and did not get it, I want to emphasise the importance of proactively acting to protect young and vulnerable children who, for numerous reasons, may not be able to speak out for themselves.
So what stories are we hearing from the Islington alley cat kids – as some of them describe themselves ? Some accounts are in the public arena as the Islington Gazette has published two articles by journalist Emma Youle who conducted sensitive and accurate interviews with the survivors.
Many of the survivors still live locally in a world largely unseen by professionals. Some have been years in prison, many have extremely poor health often with unexplained scars injuries, bumps and marks and obviously they experience the long term psychological impact of extreme trauma. Most are in poverty years after leaving care with nothing. Some were taken into care for not attending school and yet many had no education at all. For those who self educated, achieved employment and had families – it’s nothing short of a miracle. Many have died. Islington Survivors stories are rife with accounts of suicide, murder and deaths at a young age including from drug/ alcohol misuse.
In reading through dozens of files, I have discovered the parallel universes of the children and their social workers, some of course I knew as colleagues. They wrote their reports, made visits and did all the basics. Survivors remember in detail their cars, hairstyles, beards, clothes, pets and tastes in music. These workers were alien to them and they studied them astutely. They say they would never have thought to tell them about abuse so extensive because they thought no one in the ‘normal’ world could possibly comprehend it. They defined themselves as they were defined by those in authority – as bad, undeserving children.
The abusers had infiltrated the children’s institutions and the social workers as possible protectors were marginalised in many aspects of the care planning. Residential staff organised and financed holidays where much abuse took place and this included swops with children in Haut de la Garenne children’s home in Jersey. Yet social workers did not seem to question why they, as case managers, had not been in control of where and when a child went away and who went with them. I remember a young person who asked me why I hadn’t attended a meeting. He said the residential staff had held a meeting with a man who wished to foster him. They had planned his future and that it had all been recorded on computer. I had been excluded, and knew nothing about this meeting probably because I had opposed the proposed placement. Another time a residential worker put enormous pressure on me to release a young person’s passport to enable a trip to Amsterdam. I refused.
It is clear to me from reading the files that the crimes and abuse that happened were often interpreted by non-abusive staff in the context of an assumed non-abusive world. Those paid to protect were not protecting and were part and parcel of a system that labelled the abused children not as victims but as criminals, attention-seekers and liars. Labels the survivors describe as them being simply defined as ‘bad’. Some examples may explain how abuse went unrecognised;
- There was a fire in one children’s home. The children who caused it were called arsonists and placed in secure units. Simple it would seem – until survivors tell us what was happening in the home and what prompted the fire to be caused. It seems no-one asked them.
- A survivor assaulted a member of staff because a boy in the home had committed suicide and the staff member had made a cruel joke about him. He had been abused in the home and there was no context of the abuse on record – just the assault and the punishments for it. Did no-one think to question the reason for what happened and note the uncharacteristic behaviour of this young person?
- An abusive residential care worker’s description of his ‘relationship’ with a child went unquestioned by the social worker who referred to it on file as a ‘schoolgirl crush’.
- A young girl had a baby and the first night in the children’s home a member of staff was in bed with her. She jumped out of a window with the baby and slept for weeks in the park with her newborn. She is described on file as a ‘missing child’ and eventually got sent home to abusive parents.
- Children were often denied home visits as a form of punishment. Social workers accepted that the children needed punishment and did not realise that, as survivors say, they were often kept away from their families because of visible injuries or to stop them telling about abuse.
- Some children were locked in solitary confinement for weeks on secure units. Social workers made their visits and wrote their records but did not appear to question the harsh, abusive regimes and military style environment.
- There are endless accounts on files of children stealing petty amounts of food or clothes and being defined as criminals. One girl stole a hat and coat in the winter and, following arrest, ended up placed in a Magdalene style laundry. A homeless young boy was arrested on Christmas day when he stole a small amount of money for food. He was defined as a thief.
- A child disclosed abuse to her social worker who then called a meeting and made the child disclose in front of everyone including the alleged abuser. I suppose it was the social worker’s idea of family therapy but the child remained unsafe and at increased risk.
- There are accounts of children caring for younger often disabled children, witnessing them being abused and trying to comfort them. Social workers were told that these young people were ‘good with children’, did not recognise that they had inappropriate and upsetting caring responsibilities and did not investigate what was happening to those younger children.
- There was abuse between the children which went unmanaged and uncontrolled. Social workers did not recognise the risks posed by some children to others in the homes.
- Survivors say they couldn’t tell their family they were abused in the children’s home and couldn’t tell the children’s staff they were being abused at home. It was a trap. So the streets were very often a safer option. The impossible dilemmas the children experienced went unnoticed and the children’s silence was not understood.
- SWs report, ‘just wont talk, very quiet – something not telling me’. Yet, how could the children even begin to explain? Some were only interviewed in front of the residential staff or foster carers and others who were taken out, for a meal or shopping, didn’t want to spoil the occasion which was often a rare moment of enjoyment they wished to treasure.
- There are many accounts of children visiting residential staff in their own homes – a practice often promoted by social workers assuming that the experience would be a positive one. Yet abuse often happened during these visits.
- Social workers are on record as claiming money towards birthday and Christmas presents yet they did not seem to realise that some children did not receive any such gifts.
The survivors read through the file yelling, ‘its lies, lies…’ and I carefully type their version onto my timelines. Even now, very few former social workers acknowledge the reality of these abuse networks which began in the 70s when self professed paedophiles across London promoted a new policy of local children’s homes with high staff/child ratios to enable the development of intimate staff/child relationships. If, as the White Report stated, there were no organised abuse networks, how can we explain;
- Children age 13 years put on the pill as they entered a home even though they didn’t even know what sex was.
- Survivors speaking of being abandoned in forests during the night whilst others were marketed to people in cars?
- Survivors speaking of being taken to the homes of staff and being photographed and abused, of ‘posh’ men coming into the homes late at night on a regular basis and of visits by Jimmy Savile and others.
- Accounts of sexual and physical abuse by women staff.
- Survivor accounts of the use of hypnosis.
- Survivors accounts of attempted drownings, being choked and experiencing torture and beatings by ex-military men.
- File records showing that a young person was sent by staff to modelling agencies and the agency requested that the social worker did not attend the session.
Abuse was ongoing and terrifying and survivors relive these events every day – both their own experiences and what they witnessed.
So these are parallel accounts I am recording. The official version and the survivor version and they could be about different children entirely. The signs of harm were all there. When I manage to trace some of these social workers they are genuinely upset about what they did not hear or see. A former care worker has agreed for me to include part of an email, sent to ISN, in my blog. She wrote;
‘I have been questioning myself and trying to grasp how it could possibly be that I didn’t see, hear or understand the hell the children in my care were exposed to. I did see all sorts of disturbing behaviour in children as well as some adults around me. The reasons causing it were never clear. Manifold causes could have been behind it. I never – even in my wildest dreams – thought of the possibility of paedophiles. All sorts of other weird and sick things but not paedophiles. How can that be? How is it possible?’
Some children did tell their social workers and were ignored. Some social workers did report the abuse and they were not heard by managers. Three former staff say they were whistleblowing and yet the White Inquiry listed them in a confidential Appendix as being among 32 staff who posed a risk to children. They say they were victimised to keep them quiet. This has yet to be investigated but their careers with children came to a sudden end. It is evident from some social work reports that they clearly realised something was not right but they couldn’t understand what was happening when for instance, an arrangement to see a child was repeatedly cancelled or plans for conferences were undermined. I was instructed by managers not to meet a child without an advocate present. The advocate was supportive of the alleged perpetrator. It was only when the child was in custody that I saw him alone and was able to move him to safety.
Most social workers, however, did not see the abuse in front of their eyes. Explanations for injuries were accepted and those residential staff who were abusive had the run of the day in manipulating those paid to protect. The abusers supplied children to other abusers and they seemed to be able to rely on those more senior to let them continue the abuse. Children who rebelled were put into secure units into the hands of more abusers. It was a well organised network but the Inquiries consistently denied this.
For the survivors, it’s about being heard, usually for the first time, by someone they trust from ISN. A meeting can change the course of their life history and when they know that we already know about that home, or that person, their relief is visible. We say continually, ‘You were a child’ , ‘You had a right to a safe childhood’ , ‘What happened to you as a child should never have taken place by those who were supposed to be caring for you’. Of course some social workers were involved with residential staff in facilitating abuse networks, but in the main there were many good, caring social workers in Islington throughout those years who, with a few exceptions, failed the children so miserably because in their parallel universes they went about their professional work wearing the wrong pair of glasses.