At last they admit it: we were right;
Damning report on Islington’s former social services department vindicate the Evening Standard’s long campaign against the evil men who preyed on children in council care
By Eileen Fairweather & Stewart Payne
An era that allowed pimps and paedophiles to flourish unchallenged at the hear of child care in Islington, corrupting and seducing vulnerable children bestowed into their care, is finally over. It has taken three and a half years. At first the scandal uncovered by the Standard’s Children at Risk investigation was dismissed by the council leader as ‘gutter journalism’, but inquiry after inquiry – there were four in all, prompted by an alarmed Department of Health – vindicated the Standard’s articles. This fifth and final inquiry marks the change of heart by the council and a new era for the exploited children of Islington.
POLITICAL correctness and a slavish adherence to equal opportunities stifled proper investigation of suspected child abusers employed by Islington Council, a report states today. Paedophiles cynically exploited a policy designed to prevent discrimination against homosexuals to escape scrutiny and some are still working in child care today.
The report is a total vindication of the Evening Standard’s investigation into child welfare in the Labour-controlled borough. Our investigation highlighted the dangerously naive equal opportunities policy and a management system in chaos, leaving children exposed to considerable risk of abuse. The report states that, following our investigation, there has been significant improvement in the borough.
The independent inquiry by welfare expert Ian White, CBE, director of social services in Oxfordshire, and his assistant, Kate Hart, confirms that, until recently, Islington was in ‘a deplorable state of affairs’ and had disintegrated ‘from top to bottom’.
Most worryingly, it reiterates the Standard’s allegation that suspected paedophiles exploited the blinkered equal opportunities policy and, despite suspicions by other staff, escaped investigation.
While accepting the need for effective equality control, the inquiry says that the way it was implemented by Islington led to ‘over-protection’ and prevented an interventionist approach by managers.
‘In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the equal opportunities environment, driven from the personnel perspective, became a positive disincentive for challenge to bad practice,’ states the 60-page report, instigated by the Department of Health. ‘Positive discrimination in Islington has had serious unintended consequences in allowing some staff to exploit children.’
The report calls for a review of equal opportunities policy in the borough and warns: ‘We are not at all sure that the equal opportunities climate has sufficiently changed so as to avoid some of the problems of the past.’ The Evening Standard submitted a dossier to the White inquiry identifying 32 staff suspected by colleagues of abuse or neglect.
Mr White confirms that only four were investigated. Most were allowed to resign, often with glowing references.
YET all the allegations were ‘extremely serious and should have been investigated with vigour. Islington did not in most cases undertake the standard investigative processes that should have been triggered.
‘It is possible, therefore, that some staff now not in the employment of
Islington could be working elsewhere in the field of social services with a completely clean disciplinary record and yet have serious allegations still not investigated in their history.
‘Managers believed they would not be supported if they triggered disciplinary investigations involving staff from ethnic minorities or the gay community. It cannot be a coincidence that of the 32 staff a number fall within that group.’
Islington’s ‘positive bias towards certain groups’ became ‘unfair protection and a great danger’, according to the report. At the same time ‘there was no strong ethos of promoting children’s rights and protecting children at risk’.
In an unprecedented development, local authorities across Britain employing former Islington staff are advised to check their backgrounds with the Department of Health and Islington’s new management.
Mr White said the scope of the Standard investigation covered both ‘criminal behaviour as well as staff misconduct’. His report calls on other boroughs to learn from Islington’s mistakes. He describes Islington as a ‘classic study’ in how paedophiles target ‘the children’s world’.
Some may have entered its children’s homes through an agency, run by a friend of a worker subsequently tried for sexual abuse, that failed to carry out police checks. The Standard has informed the White inquiry of this organisation and details have been passed to the Department of Health.
The report expresses concern that anyone can set up a voluntary organisation, recruit volunteers and work with children.
All authorities should now demand higher standards of checks on agency staff and men obtaining contact with vulnerable children through the voluntary sector, states the report.
Controversially, the report calls for a Home Office initiative to pool police and social services information about suspects in children’s homes, education and the youth service. Currently, police are unable to pass on their intelligence about unconvicted men.
While acknowledging this is a’sensitive area’, Mr White points out that ‘a large number of men involved in paedophile rings have clean records’ despite ‘very serious’ information held by police.
A new regime of management in Islington has attempted to trace some of the children whose time in care exposed them to abuse and to offer them help. The White report states: ‘It is sadly the case that, for some of these young people, there were long periods when they were receiving inadequate care and protection and experiencing distress and damage. There are inevitably limits to the extent to which current interventions can address the effects of past wrongs.’
Today’s report examines how Islington allowed suspect staff to take early retirement or resign on medical grounds with enhanced benefits and a clean record.
‘This ‘back door’ could very well have allowed staff who were acting unprofessionally to exit Islington as questions began to be asked and again allowed them the possibility of employment elsewhere in the social services field.’ Many had been recruited with minimum checks, because Islington believed in positive discrimination for gays and ethnic minorities. ‘Officers could not insist on a reference from a previous employer (or) challenge the status of the referee. In other words, an applicant could provide references from two friends.’
The Standard passed details of its inquiry to the Health Department and Scotland Yard. Its allegations included Islington staff sexually abusing children, selling them drugs, showing and using them in pornography, and colluding with shop-lifting and child prostitution.
Vital files that went missing
THE Evening Standard investigation highlighted serious failings caused by Islington dividing its welfare services into 24 neighbourhood offices, sometimes headed by an officer with no social work experience.
The White report upholds the newspaper’s concern, stating: ‘There is no doubt in our mind that a neighbourhood structure is fundamentally unable to provide the expertise, consistency, checks and balances and professional standards required of a competent social services function.’ Islington has now overhauled the service.
The report is sympathetic with managers who repeatedly drew the deficiencies of the service to the attention of their bosses, only to be ignored. There was a ‘managerial vacuum’.
Even so ‘line managers should have visited children’s homes, should have taken necessary action, should have spoken to children, should have had proper supervisory systems, should have had proper appraisal arrangements, should have carried out spot checks and should have responded to allegations as serious as the ones made and now investigated’.
The report found no evidence of organised network abuse or of Islington failing to respond to such fears.
But it does uphold a Standard allegation that vital files required in a police investigation were not made available by Islington. The report finds no evidence of collusion ‘but considerable evidence of confusion and poor management of written records’.
It says that the Islington response to a request for files was ‘unhelpful and frustrating’ and it was easy to see how suspicions arose of their being deliberately withheld.
In fact, it is a recurring theme in the White report that files had been destroyed or misplaced and the inquiry calls on the borough to review its administrative service.
In one disturbing case, a boy in care – now 18 – who made 31 complaints against the borough, alleging severe physical and mental abuse, has been awarded £5,000 in compensation. He is currently in a psychiatric hospital after a recent suicide attempt.
The White report confirms that vital files in this boy’s case and in two other police child sex-ring inquiries went missing. ‘It appears that this happened at assistant director level’ where ‘many confidential files were destroyed by mistake’.
The loss of crucial personnel and client files makes it impossible fully to investigate many of the allegations made to the Standard.
The director, Lyn Cusack, has since resigned as have many other senior officers who presided over Islington’s child care service at the time of the Standard investigation. So, too, have the political leaders, including Margaret Hodge, now a Labour MP, and Sandy Marks, head of the social services committee.
The White report makes a list of recommendations that will have far-reaching consequences on child care beyond Islington.
Some lessons remain to be learned, and the report emphasises the need to continue reviewing equal opportunities policies and for improved training.
Thankfully, the era of Islington promoting the rights of male workers at the expense of the most vulnerable children in society is finally over.