Community Care, 17th February 2000
The story behind the North Wales Abuse Tribunal is one of failure, and failure of the worst kind. Countless children in the child care system were abused by the very people who should have had their welfare at heart.
Roger Dobson pieces together the events that led to the biggest child abuse inquiry this country has ever seen
On 18 July 1991, a confidential letter from the secretary of Clwyd Council dropped on to the desk of David Owen, chief constable of North Wales. It was to lead to the exposure of Britain’s biggest child abuse scandal.
It was only one of more than 100 letters to arrive at police headquarters marked for Owen’s attention that summer, but it would prove to be by far the most important.
One sentence in that letter set into motion a series of events that led to a major police investigation into child abuse and eventually to the setting up of North Wales Abuse Tribunal.
“There is, in my view, an unusually high level of convictions and admissions, and the level of suspicion and query is such that the council cannot but be gravely concerned,” stated the letter, which also listed named care workers against whom there were findings or suspicions.
Two months later Clwyd social services department also formally asked the police for an investigation, an inquiry that was to last more than two years, involve 2,700 witnesses and result in six convictions for abuse of children in care.
Although the events of 1991 marked a turning point, allegations and rumours of abuse of children in care in North Wales had been rife for many years. Leading politicians were alleged to be involved in paedophile activities in the area.
There were also a dozen unexplained suicides of young men who had been in care in North Wales children’s homes and a mystery fire in a Brighton house where a number of former residents died.
Many rumours had been around so long they were often taken as fact, and the problem for the police, and later for the tribunal, was to home in on what could be proven, separating rumour from fact and hearsay from the truth.
“Arriving at the truth in these circumstances invariably requires a steadfast and unswerving determination to ensure that all relevant facts are exposed and all pertinent questions are asked and answered,” Gerard Elias QC, the North Wales Tribunal’s lead counsel, stated during the hearings.
Both police and tribunal investigators found that the trail of convictions for abuse went back as far as 1975 when care worker David Taylor was convicted by Talgarth magistrates of two offences of indecent assault against residents of the now closed, privately-run Bryn Tirion children’s home.
But allegations of abuse had been made even earlier than that. In 1971, for example, there was a Home Office inquiry into the running of Bryn Estyn when it was an approved school – it later became a children’s home run by Clwyd – following allegations of physical abuse made against a senior member of staff.
Evidence to the tribunal showed that he had not been prosecuted but had been allowed to resign.
Over the 15 years following the Taylor trial in 1975 nine other care workers were convicted and further allegations surfaced. Between 1978 and 1992 there were 20 police inquiries into allegations made by residents at a number of homes in both Clwyd and Gwynedd involving claims of rape, indecent assault and physical assault.
Homes investigated included Cartref Melys, Ty’r Felin, Y Gwyngyll, Hengwrt, Bersham Hall, Pentre Saeson, Tapley Avenue, Ysgol Treborth, Bryn Alyn, Cheviot Hey, Talfryn, Gatewen, and Park House.
Care workers convicted before 1991 included:
David Taylor (indecent assault at Bryn Tirion);
Leslie Wilson (indecent assault, gross indecency, Little Action assessment centre);
Bryn Davies (indecent assault, Llangollen school);
Ian Muir (unlawful sexual intercourse, Bryn Alyn);
David Gillison (indecent assault of a 16-year old at Cheviot Hey);
Jackie Thomas (indecent assault of Cheviot Hey teenager);
Stephen Norris (indecent assault, Cartrefle);
Frederick Rutter (rape and indecent assault, Bryn Estyn).
Between 1974 and 1996, there were 12 internal inquires by Clwyd Council involving children in its care homes and no fewer than seven different management structures for children’s services within its social services department.
One of the problems with most of these internal council inquiries was that they were reactive and tended to focus on what had gone wrong at the particular home against which the latest conviction or allegation had been registered.
Only six of the 12 reports made it to the social services committee and only two of those were reported in any detail. There were also delays in completing the reports. For example, the 1992 Cartrefle report, commissioned in the wake of the conviction of Frederick Rutter in 1991, was not finished for two years and even then it was not given to social services committee members. On some issues it was out of date before it was completed.
Because the reports were not considered together it was easy to miss the common themes that ran through them. Difficulties around employment, recruitment and training of care staff were referred to in most of the reports.
In his opening speech to the tribunal Gerard Elias outlined the culture of failing to act on adverse findings in these internal reports. “We submit that the evidence will show that resignation at worst or relocation were the expected norm for members of staff against whom allegations were sustained,” he said.
But it was not just internal reports that were failing to find their way to the social services committee.
Major national reports with recommendations for good practice were also not passed to elected members, including the Warner report, the Utting reports in 1981 and 1991, the Hughes report on Kincora, and the 1983 code of practice for residential care.
Had anyone put the convictions, suspensions, suspicions, resignations and inquiry reports together at any time during the 1980s they would have identified a worrying trend in abuse and allegations of abuse by residential child care staff in Clwyd.
They would have also found an unacceptable level of police inquiries, followed by prosecutions. They would have seen that there were links between some of the convicted abusers: four convicted sexual abusers – Peter Howarth, Stephen Norris, Frederick Rutter and David Gillison – worked at one time or another at Bryn Estyn.
Other people against whom allegations were made, including an alleged abuser in Gwynedd, but who were not prosecuted also spent some time working at the home. “One of the disturbing features of Bryn Estyn is the large number of employees who were later to be identified as serious abusers. There can be little doubt that most or all of the most serious sexual abusers knew each other,” said Elias during the hearings.
Anyone delving beneath the surface would also have found a culture where it was simply not possible for many of the children in care in North Wales to complain against abuse.
The tribunal heard that there was no effective method of making complaints at some of the children’s homes. Time and again in their witness statements to the tribunal inquiry team, former residents said they made no complaint because no one would have believed them or because the person to whom they could have complained was himself the abuser.
The conviction of Frederick Rutter in 1991 appears to have been the event that triggered more widespread action.
The letter from the Clwyd Council secretary to the North Wales chief constable referred to the trial and to mention made during it to the possibility of a paedophile ring operating in the area. “I understand that when your officers investigated the case against Mr Rutter they were at one stage concerned as to the question of the existence of a paedophile ring. This question exercises my mind greatly and I believe it will be a matter of equal concern to you,” said the letter.
Within weeks a major police inquiry was under way. By September 1993, when the main part of the inquiry was nearing completion, the police had taken around 3,500 statements from 2,700 witnesses. In all about 500 people made complaints of abuse in statements to the police during that investigation.
As a result of this major police inquiry, eight people were prosecuted and six of them convicted, but no evidence was found to support the allegations of a paedophile ring at work.
With the police inquiry complete, Clwyd Council commissioned John Jillings, the former director of social services in Derbyshire, to chair a tribunal that would review residential child care in the county.
In 1996 he and his team produced a highly detailed and damning report which criticised the regime that had existed. It was also critical of the role of insurers.
It was the first to look at all the issues across the county and it went into great detail about the shortcomings – the lack of inspections; the role of the Welsh Office; the difficulties children faced in making complaints; the suicides of a dozen ex-residents; details of the unpublished reports; and the attempts by the council’s insurers to keep adverse reports under wraps.
Ironically, Clywd Council kept the Jillings report itself secret – all copies were numbered and at one point recalled by the council. Five years on, neither the report nor its recommendations have ever been published.
But although it was never published, it had the desired effect. It was the catalyst for the North Wales Abuse Tribunal. The outcry over its non-publication and subsequent revelations about what was actually in it led the then government to set up the tribunal as well as a national review of residential child care in England and Wales by Sir William Utting and in Scotland by Roger Kent.
The tribunal was given judicial powers with the ability to require people to give evidence. It sat for more than a year and estimates for its cost range up to £20 million.
Its brief was to examine residential child care in both Clwyd and Gwynedd over a 20 year period – no mean task since that involved 12,000 children and 84 different homes, most of which are now closed.
Its investigators found abuse and allegations of abuse on a colossal scale. More than 700 complaints made at approximately 40 homes, including 138 from former residents of Bryn Estyn; 85 at Ty’r Felin in Gwynedd; and 96 at Bryn Alyn. More than 350 former residents gave evidence at the tribunal.
The following allegations formed the basis of the police investigation that began in 1991. More than one allegation of abuse were made at a series of homes:
Bersham Hall (41),
Berwyn Hall (seven),
Bryn Alyn (96),
Bryn Estyn (138),
Bryn Tirion (15),
Cartref Bontnewydd (four),
Cartref Melys (two),
Cherry Hill (two),
Cheviot Hey (34)
Clwyd Hall (four),
Dol Rhyd (two),
Park House (18),
Pentre Saeson (20),
Queens Park (13),
South Meadows (13),
Ty Newydd (12),
Ty’r Felin (85),
Upper Downing (12),
Y Gwyngyll (18),
Ynys Fechan (four),
Ysgol Talfryn (19),
Ystrad Hall (39).
For many people the lasting image of what being in care in North Wales could mean in the seventies and eighties was the opening comment of Gerard Elias in the first few days of the tribunal hearings.
“All too often, it seems, the child entered the system bewildered and left it having been randomly placed, brutalised, poorly educated, if not positively influenced for the worse, sexually damaged and abandoned to his or her fate.”
Timetable of discovery
1974: Clwyd and Gwynedd Councils created by local government reorganisation.
1975: Care worker David Taylor convicted of indecent assault of residents at Bryn Tirion children’s home.
1977: Leslie Wilson, house father at Little Action assessment centre, convicted of indecent assault,
gross indecency and attempting a serious sexual offence. He was jailed for 15 months.
1978: Brian Davies, a residential social worker, pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting two boys at Ystrad Hall. He was placed on probation.
1980: A Clwyd social worker resigned after being investigated for serious sexual offences.
1982: Independent report concluded Gwynedd’s children’s section is poorly administered.
1986: Ian Muir, deputy head of Bryn Alyn, convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl at the home and given a six-month prison sentence.
1986: Alison Taylor, a residential social worker at Ty Newydd, made a series of complaints and Gwynedd Council asked police to investigate.
1987: David Gillison, a care worker at Bryn Estyn, was jailed for three and half years for offences against a 16-year-old boy from Cheviot Hey. Judge called for inquiry into how Gillison was employed but the council took nearly four years to finish its report.
1990: Stephen Norris, care worker at Bryn Estyn, jailed for 12 years for rape and indecent assault.
1991 (July): Frederick Rutter, a former Bryn Estyn worker, was found guilty of raping residents at a hostel for the homeless in Connah’s Quay and jailed for 12 years.
1991 (July): Clwyd Council alerted North Wales Police to concerns about abuse by residential care workers.
1991 (September): Clwyd social services department formally asked police to investigate, and funded NSPCC helpline. Crown Prosecution Service appointed special case worker.
1991 (December): North Wales Police launched major inquiry under command of Detective Superintendent Peter Ackerley.
1992: Five separate police investigations into allegations of abuse at separate homes under way in Clwyd and Gwynedd. North Wales chief constable Owen urged a tribunal of inquiry.
1992: Clwyd Council held inquiry into Cartrefle children’s homes but it was never published.
1993: Stephen Norris, a care worker at Bryn Estyn, received a suspended jail sentence for sexual offences against nine boys in his care.
1994: Peter Howarth, a care worker at Bryn Estyn, sentenced to seven years in jail for sexual offences against seven boys in his care.
1995: John Allen, head of Bryn Alyn, convicted of sexual offences against six boys and sent to jail for six years.
1995/96: John Jillings, former Derbyshire social services director, carried out first Clwyd-wide inquiry with damning conclusions but it is never published.
1996: North Wales Abuse Tribunal set up under Sir Ronald Waterhouse to examine the abuse of children in care in the former council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974.
1997: Tribunal finished taking evidence.
1999: Tribunal report completed.
2000: Tribunal report published.