Lured into the Hot House of corruption (7.10.92)

Evening Standard, 7th October 1992

 by Stewart Payne & Eileen Fairweather

THE children on the streets of Islington called it ‘The Hot House’, a place where adults gave them drugs, cigarettes and drink.

It was the home of a suspected prostitute. A few doors away lived a convicted child molester. And, to the concern of welfare workers, youngsters were known regularly to visit both houses.

Repeatedly they warned social services bosses at Islington council of their fears that a paedophile network was active in the community.

The Evening Standard has seen confidential council documents in which desperate staff plead for management action to protect children whom they believed were being procured for sex.

Two years on, they fear these children are still at risk. But Islington has called a halt to its investigation. It set up two working parties to consider the allegations and concluded there was no evidence of sexual abuse.

In many ways, this case is a classic social work dilemma. Field social workers discover an abundance of circumstantial evidence that children are being abused, but no actual proof. A police investigation fails to produce the necessary evidence for a prosecution. After several months the matter is laid to rest.

Islington has told the Standard that it responded to the fears of its social workers by setting up the joint working parties. ‘All agencies concluded unanimously that no further action should be taken.’

Yet we have spoken to those who actually dealt with the children at the centre of the abuse fears – social workers, teachers, police, medical staff, parents and neighbours. Many remain convinced the abuse is genuine and that Islington’s response falls short of what is needed.

Social workers were ordered to stop interviewing children, and their request for a borough-wide inquiry into network sexual abuse was refused.

One senior worker involved in the case said: ‘There was a lot we couldn’t prove, but that’s not the point in social work terms. There was enough to cause great alarm and indicate the need for a co-ordinated strategy.

‘This never happened. To this day there is no liaison between the different neighbourhood offices, no way of collating fears and allegations.’

The children involved in this disturbing story are either in care or under the supervision of a social worker. They live in a depressed, inner-city area where unemployment is high. Some have loving but inadequate parents. Others are from broken, violent or uncaring backgrounds.

The two houses are in the area covered by Islington’s Irene Watson Neighbourhood Office, named after a former Labour councillor.

As long ago as June 1990 social workers were pressing management to respond to their ‘common suspicion of sexual abuse’. A report from the neighbourhood office spoke of ‘tearful, depressed, perhaps drugged’ children visiting them in desperate need of help.

These workers soon discovered a common theme: the youngsters were visiting the two houses, lured by drugs, drink, cigarettes and money, and emerging in a highly distressed state. The report says the children were ‘unable to confide in us despite their obvious sense of trust. Almost all attempts to get close have failed’.

Most of the children were in their early to mid-teens. Worried parents compounded the social workers’ fears, reporting that their children were regularly visiting the two houses. Neighbours confirmed that youngsters trooped in and out. Some reported hearing children screaming. Vans were seen to take children away and then return with them hours later.

Most of the children were displaying behavioural problems and were involved in burglaries and car-related crimes. Two had attempted suicide.

Social workers, analysing all the circumstances, concluded the youngsters were showing classic signs of sexual abuse. These fears were confirmed when investigations revealed that a convicted sex offender, who had been jailed for running a child brothel, lived at one of the houses visited by the children.

He has twice been imprisoned for child sex offences, including gross indecency, and once on a drugs charge. At his last trial he was said to have lured boys to his home with the offer of money.

Following his release from prison he registered for housing with Islington council. In the full knowledge of what a psychiatrist called his ‘unfortunate condition’, Islington agreed he be ‘sensitively rehoused’.

Its idea of ‘sensitive’ was to put him in a flat close to a playground and a homeless families unit where dozens of children lived and played.

The man’s former probation worker told the council that she regarded him as ‘dangerous’ and that he might again try to involve himself with children.  This warning lay forgotten for five years.

The Evening Standard has seen documents from social workers which reflect their concern and frustration over the way Islington responded. In one they wrote: ‘There has to be a serious acknowledgement by management of the level and degree of work involved and the inadequacy of our resources to respond appropriately.’

The document concluded: ‘The stress on the team of continually dealing with young people in crisis is very great and social workers, however skilled, feel helpless and demoralised . . .’

In another, more recent, report, social workers wrote to management about fears of a paedophile ring. Referring to the convicted sex offender, they said observation revealed his flat was ‘always full of children from all over the borough between the ages of 10 and 14’, adding that they feared ‘this person was working with other adults to procure children’.

Police put the sex offender’s flat under surveillance. They saw more than 30 children enter over a two-week period but when they raided they found them watching television. Two boys questioned by police indicated that sexual abuse occurred but they denied they had been assaulted. There was no evidence to support a prosecution.

Afterwards the workers warned their bosses: ‘Whether the police have enough evidence to prosecute or not should not stop the department from taking some action to carry out its preventative role.’

Children reported the man was picking up young boys at lunchtime from local schools. But because there was no borough-wide inquiry, schools in the area were not told by the council. ‘We had to alert the education services on the quiet,’ said one social worker.

In a follow-up report they said: ‘We urge again that a small working group be set up to co-ordinate the inquiry borough-wide.’ It wasn’t.

They raised the issue at a meeting with local residents, warning people: ‘Children aged nine to 16 years are very much at risk in this neighbourhood through sexual exploitation. We need to explore the real possibility of sex rings functioning in this area.’

The only response was an angry letter from council leader Margaret Hodge, ward councillor for the area, criticising them for raising the matter publicly.

Social workers are critical of Islington’s relationship with police.  Although local officers were on the working parties set up by the council, there is a deep-rooted mistrust of police, they say.

One worker said: ‘We are discouraged from working with police. There is an anti-police attitude by some senior staff in Islington and therefore our consultations with child protection officers often had to be whispers in corners.’

Islington denies this, insisting it worked with police and other agencies on two joint working parties. ‘The investigation did not result in any evidence of sexual abuse.’

This has been greeted with incredulity by field social workers. ‘We had an abundance of evidence and were still gathering more when we were told to stop. It may not have been enough for the police to prosecute but it was certainly enough to cause us great alarm.’

Staff described the two working parties as ‘talking shops’ and Islington has admitted that the second only met twice. Islington told the Standard there had been no allegations of sexual abuse. Yet this is directly contradicted by the mother of a five-year-old boy who described being abused to police and social workers.

Teenagers traced by the Evening Standard have given independent accounts of what went on inside The Hot House and the home of the convicted child molester.

The Hot House, a name known to dozens of kids in the Holloway Road and Hornsey Road area of the borough, is a flat within an Islington homeless families unit. Until recently it was occupied by a woman in her mid-20s (whom we shall call Janet), suspected by social workers of being a prostitute, together with her husband and their young children. Their real identities are known to us but we are withholding them for legal reasons.  Countless youngsters stayed at this address, day and night.

In a pattern familiar to social workers and police, we found that children rarely admitted to being actively involved in sexual behaviour themselves. It always happened to someone else. Yet their stories were remarkably similar.

One of the most candid accounts came from Kate (not her real name), now 18, who had been under council supervision since she was abandoned by her mother at the age of 10, including spells in Islington council homes.

She was made a ward of court in 1987, with Islington council having care and control of her. An attempt to foster Kate had failed, and although she was only about 14 – her precise age has never been determined – social services officials suggested putting her in bed and breakfast accommodation.  In the event, Kate slipped the net altogether and went to live with Janet and her husband in the homeless families unit.

Soon afterwards she was given a place at an Islington children’s home at 18 Highbury Grove but she continued her association with the pair.

Social workers were already concerned about Janet after reports of two of her children, aged five and six, displaying ‘sexualised behaviour’ at school and talking of ‘sexing boys’. Neighbours had made numerous complaints about activities at the flat.

Kate said: ‘Boys and girls would doss at her place. They would hang around her flat smoking marijuana. Janet would smoke it as well. She was a bit of a tart. She liked men and she liked sex. She would go out for a drink and someone would chat her up and she would bring them back. Sometimes I would stay behind and look after her kids.

‘I felt sorry for them because they would wake up to find she had a different man in her bed every other night. Sometimes she would stay out all night.’

Kate said that many of the children who stayed at the flat would also visit the nearby home of the convicted child molester where they would also smoke dope. ‘It was another place to doss,’ she said. Kate admits to visiting the man’s home but says he never touched her. ‘I stopped hanging about there after a couple of months. But kids of 12 and 13 still go there.’

Asked if sex took place at either flat, Kate would only say: ‘Boys and girls fell in love there.’ She herself admits to becoming pregnant by the suspected prostitute’s husband and now has his seven-month-old baby. She has no contact with the father.

Islington case conference notes, seen by the Evening Standard, reveal that on one occasion Kate did confirm to a social worker that sex took place between adults and children at The Hot House.

A boy who visited the address, whom we shall call Keith, said: ‘It was sex. All different kinds. Boys and men and girls.’ He said that Janet would take part. He was threatened with violence if he spoke of what was going on.

A former caretaker at the short-stay homeless families unit said: ‘The woman who lived in that flat was well-known locally. I used to wonder why she had so many teenagers there – dozens of them. Some might have been living there. I’m not sure.’

He helped tidy up the flat when the woman was moved. ‘We found pornographic magazines of the hard-core variety,’ he said.

Janet has now been rehoused elsewhere by Islington. When council staff went to tidy up the flat they found scales suspected of being used in drug deals. Walls were daubed with drugs and sex symbols.

Meanwhile, the convicted sex offender still lives in the nearby flat.  And, even as social workers were urging Islington to act on their fears, other alarming cases were emerging.

The teacher of a 15-year-old girl who had been placed under the supervision of a social worker, and whose family were believed to be involved with the sex offender, wrote to Islington social services department, saying the girl ‘broke down in tears when asked about people hurting her. She said people were, but could go no further. Concerns have been expressed through a third party that blue movies are being shown . . .  and social services department has recorded involvement of the family with a known paedophile offender.’

The teacher concluded: ‘She is in desperate need of help.’

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