Appearing at the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry in Edinburgh, Angus Skinner, former chief social work adviser to the Scottish Executive and Scotland’s former chief social work inspector, said too little was done about abuse because “we just didn’t believe there could be so much.”
He said he had been aware of physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children in care, but in the context of dismal standards of accommodation and practise.
“The furniture was dreadful, windows were smashed and left for months. In that context I was also aware of abuse but I vastly underestimated how much there was. I absolutely hold my hands up to that,” Mr Skinner said.
“I don’t think I was alone in underestimating the extent of abuse and in particular the evil and the extent of the duplicitous cover up,” he added.
While he had attempted to do what he could, his view had been that rates of child abuse could not be addressed without addressing the overall standard of care, he told the inquiry.
He said a lack of training and a workforce which was demoralised and undervalued contributed to the problem. It was common to visit children’s homes and find workers in the staff room rather than interacting with young residents, he claimed.
Without a motivated workforce, children lacked confidence that complaints of abuse would be addressed.
He said his concerns grew from the date of his appointment in 1991. “By 1992 or 1993 I thought there was a very serious problem and we needed to take some kind of different action.”
Although changes were eventually made, Mr Skinner said, they were limited. “I did try to address the quality of care and the issue of abuse. I didn’t do as much as I should have and I need to live with that,” he said.
His evidence to the inquiry came after its chair Lady Smith had taken further statements from the Congregation of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, following the conviction of 70 year old Brian Dailey in July this year.
A few days after the conviction, Sister Rosemary Keen told the inquiry that the sisters had no knowledge of any abuse which had taken place at any of its institutions.
At the time, Lady Smith expressed astonishment, as some of the most serious abuse for which Dailey was convicted took place at Ladymary School in Colinton while it was run by the order.
However David Anderson, lawyer for the Good Shepherd Sisters yesterday insisted Sister Keen had not misled the inquiry.
For Police Scotland, Laura-Ann van der Westhuizen confirmed that while attempts had been made to contact the order, an experienced detective constable working with Edinburgh’s Public Protection Unit had been unable to do so.
Even had he done so, the allegations would not have been discussed, Ms van der Westhuizen added, claiming the officer was only seeking school records. As the allegations were 40 years old, there was no evidence of current risk, she said.
“I understand that,” Lady Smith said. “I wasn’t thinking about risk, I was thinking about gathering evidence for the prosecution.”
And the judge poured scorn on Police claims that the order could not be located because Ladymary School had closed. “Googling the name of this order, you can find contact details within about 60 seconds. The address and Sister Keen’s name are there. It is at your fingertips with the service of Google,” she said.
Lady Smith said she was “concerned” at the attitude of Police Scotland.
“I want to air a concern I have that there would have been no interest on the part of the police in at least letting the order know they were looking at what happened at the school for which the order was responsible for a number of years – quite separately from having an interest in locating any relevant witnesses,” she said.
A third witness to the inquiry said she had been concerned about the quality of accommodation run by a number of charities while working as a children’s officer in the 1950s, including one run by the Catholic order the Sisters of Nazareth in Midlothian, the Aberlour orphanage in the Highland village of the same name, and Quarriers Village in Bridge of Weir.
Working firstly in Roxburgh and then Angus, she had withdrawn local children from a number of homes, she said.
In one case a doctor had refused to discharge a girl back to Nazareth House as she was suffering from malnutrition, she said, describing the home as “awful”.
She said the Aberlour home had been on the “tourist trail” with visitors on tour buses stopping to view children as if they were zoo animals. Children deemed “naughty” were locked up in the gym for the duration of visits, she claimed. “On one occasion they pretended to be monkeys in front of the tourists.”
The charity operated a collection box for such visits, she also claimed, adding: “They made some money from it.”
She also said parents had been obliged to sign consent forms to commit children to stay with charities until they were 16 although these were not legally binding. “The idea was that if you took a child from a Glasgow slum and looked after it, you didn’t want it to return to a Glasgow slum”, she said. “It was said at the time that Glasgow would fill a van with children and take them up to the Highlands, where they would knock on doors and ask ‘how many can you take?'”.
The inquiry continues.