Only when all those working in the field of childcare are prepared to stand up and be counted will the scourge of abuse ever be combated, says Sarah Nelson
Aberdeen’s social work department responded openly and in detail through the media to serious criticisms about its supervision of paedophile Steven Leisk in this week’s McManus Report. That response by no means ended public disquiet, but it did contribute positively to a thoughtful debate, which McManus’s own wide-ranging report has encouraged.
Besides, the public knew social work director Peter Cassidy had himself commissioned the report, and was prepared to take the consequences.
But though more open approaches like these clearly benefit all sides in the debate, are they all too rare in the fraught area of child sex abuse? Does fear by official agencies of speaking out publicly, or of allowing their own staff to do so, work against the interests of abused children?
”It must never happen again.” When shocked professionals shared the public’s view after the recent court case into sexual abuse in Edinburgh children’s homes in the 1980s, they did not just mean the sadistic exploitation which saw two senior care workers jailed for a total of 27 years.
They also referred to revelations that young people kept trying to tell of their abuse, but were ignored or disbelieved by professionals.
Past scandals also reveal how staff who did speak out on behalf of abused children were often scapegoated for doing so. Social worker Alison Taylor was sacked after ”whistleblowing” in the North Wales children’s homes scandal – now the subject of another official inquiry.
But are these things really in the past? Agencies charged with protecting children, shaken by years of hostile press coverage, remain fearful of speaking frankly on their behalf, especially through the media. Too often staff who stand up to be counted for children are still being punished or ostracised – not by child abusers, but by their own agencies, and fellow professionals in the childcare field.
In November, a 10th anniversary conference of the Cleveland abuse crisis was held in Newcastle. It was unusual as figures who were centrally involved, who bore the brunt of controversy, were invited to speak: Dr Marietta Higgs, Dr Geoffrey Wyatt, Sue Richardson, Heather Bacon, Marjorie Dunn. It was also unusual because survivors, who know most about sexual abuse, and community groups who organised against this abuse, were given a platform.
Yet amid rumours of a boycott, not a single health professional attended, nor did any senior social services managers. In contrast, the major Cleveland: 10 Years On conference in Newcastle in April was well-attended by senior professionals.
Speakers were judges, QCs, professors, and eminent psychiatrists. No survivor or community group was thought fit to be invited to share the platform.
It seems officials working with children at risk preferred safe topics, and shrank from association with controversial people and issues. Yet even if they still felt critical of individuals from Cleveland, their absence meant they missed disturbing findings on how current protection systems were failing to safeguard children – particularly the very young.
Does official defensiveness mean the authorities are falling behind the public and the media in their willingness to discuss openly that unspeakable, unimaginable things do happen to children?
Ever more people were drawing that reluctant conclusion even before the Edinburgh children’s homes case – after the horrors of the West case in Gloucester, the Belgian child murder scandal, and a stream of paedophile abuse cases. Yet most agencies whose job is to protect children remain silent inside their laager, wounded and distrustful of journalists and public after savage scapegoating in cases like Cleveland, Orkney, and Rochdale.
In contrast, accused adults use every media weapon available to publicise their cause and influence opinion among the public, the media, and the legal and medical professions. Their efforts have often been very successful. For instance there is no reputable evidence that any ”syndrome” of false memory exists. Yet advocates of FMS have gained widespread, largely uncritical media coverage.
Of course child protection agencies are right that some media have been heavily biased in reporting child sexual abuse. The media need public scrutiny, and they need to examine their own record. But this will not happen until they are challenged more assertively with the facts. Breaking silence must involve communicating through the media, for the clock cannot be turned back on modern technology.
Why has the most meticulous and topical information source in recent years come not from childcare agencies, but from the regular Accuracy About Abuse bulletins put together by one busy journalist, Marjorie Orr? Why has she been left to plough such a lone furrow?
Campaigning journalist Mike Jempson believes that continuing silence acts against the abused children and adults officials seek to protect. He spoke out last year at an international congress in Edinburgh. Even the conference itself, he said, was a ”tragic waste of opportunity”.
The four-day event, run by the British Association for Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, had dozens of fascinating papers. There were projects to tackle sexual abuse by clergy, there was Scottish research on abuse and HIV, there were positive examples of working with local communities.
There was no confidentiality problem about the majority of papers, no sensitive detail about current cases. Yet few journalists had even been told the congress was happening. Some speakers said that if the media came, they wouldn’t.
Jempson is director of the recently-formed Presswise organisation. It aims to break down distrust between journalists and child protection staff, identify common guidelines, and find constructive ways of helping protect children. If they work together, he believes, media bias will be challenged, while child protection groups will be able to speak more openly without compromising their principles.
He knows the frustrations involved, after collecting sheaves of evidence last year for a TV documentary about 20 years of organised abuse in West of England schools. But legal barriers prevented much of it being broadcast, while police, local authority, voluntary workers, and teachers declined to co-operate. This all helped ensure a public ignorance which ”allows offenders to thrive, hidden from view, imposing silence with threats and other inducements” says Jempson.
Sue Richardson knows the price of speaking the truth on behalf of children – exacted this time not by accused parents or vengeful media, but by a leading child protection charity. As child abuse consultant in Cleveland in 1987, Richardson was ”demonised” along with Dr Marietta Higgs. Last May she saw no option but to resign from her post with NCH-Action for Children in Glasgow. She faced the sack unless she withdrew from a Channel 4 programme about the ”Cleveland affair”.
Charity bosses in London told Richardson that NCH-AFC might suffer bad publicity by being identified with Cleveland through her. Yet in fact the programme confirmed her claims that evidence was withheld from the Cleveland courts in 1987; and that deliberate decisions were taken that nobody would know what happened to children returned home by those courts. Reviews of Death of Childhood suggested it shifted public perceptions of the ”Cleveland affair” – mainly because by speaking out, a very few professionals enabled the programme to be made.
Yet in this, and the next programme on alleged ritual abuse cases, the majority of agencies, including social work departments and health authorities, refused to take part. They either forbade, or did not wish, individual staff to do so.
For instance, Children 1st (formerly RSSPCC) declined to take part in the Orkney programme, telling a reporter the agency no longer did investigative work, and the case was a ”long time ago”. It was in 1991, and police across Britain are currently investigating children’s home allegations going back to the 1960s. No-one suggests this makes them less important.
Agencies’ refusal to comment deprives the public of relevant details, and helps ensure one-sidedness in coverage. Besides, do agencies who lost credibility over their handling of particular cases best restore it by distancing themselves, hoping people will forget, or by presenting the public with different information to consider?
The silencing of staff raises important issues for employment law and good practice – about human rights, civil liberties, and justifications for ”gagging clauses” in contracts or severance agreements.
A central reason why professionals do not comment is that it would betray the confidentiality of children or other clients. But they now have to ask with brutal honesty how far this has actually worked in favour of abused people over the past decade, when the other side has had no such qualms, using every media weapon to discredit them.
Parents have even given for publication the names and photographs of their adult children who accuse them of abuse. This supposedly child-centred policy of confidentiality has not protected those it was designed to protect, and has left many survivors feeling disempowered.
Ways must be found of modifying blanket confidentiality policies in the interests of victims. The problem was mentioned in the Orkney inquiry report five years ago, yet there has been no urgency in tackling it.
There are many ways of briefing the media about the background to a case, on or off the record. Letters correcting blatant untruths published about families or staff should be written promptly to newspapers. Older children, teenagers, and adults should actively be consulted about what they themselves wish to have revealed, or whether they would like a forum to speak, when they face concerted distortion. Young people’s groups like Who Cares? Scotland should also be consulted.
Fear of litigation – especially by articulate, middle class men – is another reason for official silence. These are real concerns, fuelled by intimidatory tactics in the US. But there are dangers in using the US as a warning model since it is a uniquely litigious society.
Fear of being sued can paralyse and intimidate a council or a wider system, making it deferential and timid, more concerned about apologising to aggrieved adults than about monitoring risks to children. But children cannot be protected without giving some offence to adults.
If genuine abusers saw a polite, but assertive, willingness to risk legal actions where embarrassing evidence about them would be revealed, they would think twice about going ahead.
Another, perfectly honourable reason for restrained comment is respect for law, due process, and moderation in public statements, especially towards the judiciary. No-one is suggesting officials should start issuing a stream of invective or outrageous remarks. But it is possible to be outspoken in a courteous way from their first duty to protect children at risk.
How far is reticence based on tradition, bureaucratic caution, or outdated deference? For instance, what might have happened if the unusual concern and distress of child protection agencies had been voiced after Sheriff Colin Miller’s controversial judgment, which returned home eight Ayrshire children in 1995.
This new appeal hearing took place several years after the original sheriff declared the facts proved in this alleged case of sadistic organised abuse. Many subsequent hearings had upheld his verdict. Strathclyde social work department did issue a meticulously-detailed response to Sheriff Miller some weeks later. But suppose for a moment that the SWD, the Association of Directors of Social Work, the chief reporter to the children’s panel and his professional body, and major voluntary child protection agencies had all put their names to an immediate statement of what they actually felt.
”We disagree with this judgment; we stand by the judgments of all previous legal hearings; we believe the conduct of this hearing gives concern and was not impartial; we think the child JF’s treatment in court was disgraceful; and we fear children have been placed at serious risk”? Certainly this would have caused a sensation and front-page headlines. Such a course could not be taken lightly or often. But the judiciary, public, and media would have been forced to confront a very serious disagreement, raised by highly respected people, and debate it and respond to it. No-one professional could have been isolated for dismissal or disciplinary action.
We have to ask why this scenario, in any abuse case, seems so unthinkable. It is, after all, only about words. It would involve no flouting of the court, no radical action with serious implications, such as refusal to return children home. Should it be unimaginable for leading childcare agencies and individuals publicly to say in effect: ”Do what you will: the safety of children is more important to us than convention, or concerns about our own professional position”?
A new outspokenness and honesty among childcare professionals would do more than benefit children. It would raise their own morale and self-respect, and make it easier to align themselves with survivors and local communities.
Because it is fear, anxiety, isolation, and frustration which cause stress and burnout in this work. For individual staff, guilt and self-blame, suffered in private, have also been crippling: the sense – however undeserved – of having failed to protect children whose faces they can’t forget.
New courage at the most senior level would also show a proper respect for survivors and protective parents. Statutory and voluntary agencies are the public faces of child protection. They speak for many child and adult survivors who cannot yet do so. If they will not stand up to be counted and face the consequences, who else will? Can they keep urging abused children and their communities to ”break the silence”, not least about organised abuse, if they don’t lead by example?
After all, survivors and protective parents (mainly mothers, but some fathers too) have shown the way by speaking out publicly and battling for justice, often at great personal and financial cost. For it is not embarrassment, poor publicity, or even possible loss of a job such people have faced, in their life experience, in their challenges to bad practice, and in their public campaigning.
It is their bodily integrity, their sanity, their freedom from being incarcerated in prisons or mental hospitals. It is the risk of losing all access to their children: it is even sometimes risk to their very lives, and the lives of their children.
n Sarah Nelson was a keynote speaker at the BASPCAN international congress in 1997. As a professional journalist, she wrote widely about the Orkney Inquiry. She is currently carrying out research on sexual abuse at Edinburgh University’s sociology department.