Evening Standard, 17 November 2003
The public humiliation of children’s minister, Margaret Hodge, will continue today as two more victims of Islington care homes tell her: “I want a public apology too.” Yvonne Williams and Douglas Fitch are demanding a “face to face” public meeting in which she can prove her claim to be a “listening minister” by hearing their stories of abuse and explaining why she failed to act when faced with reports by social workers.
And in a sensational new hammer blow to the beleaguered minister, another former Islington senior social worker has said that he attended a meeting – called by Hodge when she was council leader – in which she flatly told all senior social workers: “Sexual abuse does not exist in Islington.”
This meeting was held, he says, after David Cofie, another senior social worker, had reported to Hodge that scores of children – some as young as nine – were being sexually abused in Islington. His testimony is powerful evidence that the culture of suppression and denial – which Cofie and his deputy, Liz Davies, tried to expose in the Standard earlier this year – went right to the top.
Hodge has always argued she was “misled” by her senior management, whereas Cofie and Davies have insisted otherwise. Until now, it was their word against hers. But this new witness confirms Hodge actually set the agenda on how children who reported sexual abuse should be handled by social workers. “There is no doubt that the culture under Hodge was to disbelieve the children,” he says.
This damning testimony comes from the man, now 51, who was Yvonne Williams’s social worker. He is still in the employ of Islington Council and so cannot be named without its permission, which he is seeking today.
Called at his home last night, he said: “My colleague David Cofie had presented powerful evidence to Hodge of sexual abuse in Islington. She wanted to slap him down and she told us that it was all malicious rumour and that it didn’t happen. But I – and others – knew that it did.
“Yvonne Williams was my client and she was horribly abused, but back then children like her and Fitch and all the others you have reported about were not believed. This is why I find Hodge’s comments last week on Demetrious Panton being ‘extremely disturbed’ so unbelievable.
“Over a decade has passed and she still comes out with comments that rubbish the children – just as she did when she was leader of Islington Council.”
Yvonne Williams, who was sexually abused almost every day for six years from the tender age of 10, yesterday told the Standard why she is still angry and demanding a public apology from Hodge.
“If you see someone doing wrong, and you allow that person to get away with it, then you are as guilty as the people who did the crimes themselves,” she says.
“That is why Hodge – who tried to sweep it under the carpet when it was brought to her attention – must be held accountable. She needs to feel our pain, hear our anger. She needs to stop thinking like a politician and behave like a human being. People’s lives have been ruined.”
Unlike Williams, who received a £30,000 settlement from Islington Council two years ago, Douglas Fitch was, until recently, unaware of his legal rights. Now he has told the Standard that he is determined to bring his own lawsuit, not just against the council, but against Hodge, too, and he has approached Williams’s solicitor, Frances Swaine at Leigh, Day & Co, to explore legal action.
“I hold Hodge directly responsible for the abuse I suffered,” says Douglas. “My brother, Michael, was sexually abused in care before me, and if Hodge had listened to the social workers he complained to, then there is every likelihood that I would never have been abused. I will not rest until I get justice.”
Both Williams and Fitch say it is not enough for Hodge to apologise to Panton, whom she slurred last week. For when Hodge was leader of Islington, they say, she presided over a culture that branded abused children as “liars”. Williams and Fitch insist “she has brought that perverted state of mind into the job as minister”.
“That is why she must resign. That is why she is not fit for the job,” says Williams.
Demands for Hodge’s resignation have never really stopped since June, when a Standard investigation published documentary evidence that Hodge conclusively knew about the abuse, yet failed to act. Initially, she had pleaded ignorance until the scandal came to light in October 1992, the last months of her tenure. But a “killer memo”, dated April 1990, provided proof that she was told twoanda-half years earlier.
This memo – on the council leader’s letterhead – exposed Hodge rebuking Cofie for requesting extra staff to investigate “sexual abuse among eight to 16-year-old children”, callously reminding him that the budget was overspent.
The Standard also published a second document, this one by social workers, dated April 1990, which warned Hodge that “14 children” – some as young as nine – were “at risk of sexual exploitation”.
Hodge never satisfactorily explained why she tried to deny knowledge of the abuse, and why, when this was exposed, she had rubbished the social workers who reported the abuse, and then failed to act.
Instead, shooting the messenger became Hodge ‘ s signature response. She responded that way when the Standard first exposed the child abuse scandal back in 1992, calling our reports “gutter journalism”. And she was up to the same dirty tricks last week, shamefully smearing Panton when she heard the BBC was investigating his story.
The Islington victims say it defies decency how she has got away with it. For the abuse that took place on her watch and before – they remind us – was not isolated to one residential unit. So far – last week and in the summer – we have published the horrific stories of five victims whose abuse spanned the borough.
Demetrious Panton, 35, suffered his abuse at Elwood Street. Douglas and Michael Fitch, 28 and 35, were abused while in Islington’s care at Shepall Manor Special School in Stevenage. Ann Belcher, 28, was preyed on at 80 Highbury New Park, and Liam Lucas, 26, was sodomised as a nine-year-old at Grosvenor Avenue.
Today, the horrific goings-on at Gisburne House, yet another Islingtoncontrolled home, is added to this list of shame. Yvonne Williams, 40, was in care at Gisburne from the age of 10 to 17, where she was abused by the home’s superintendent, Geoffrey Wylde-Jones.
Visibly shaking, Yvonne says that telling her story is “the hardest thing” she’s ever done. “In a normal world,” she says, “it would be Hodge hiding her face, not me.”