How one 15-year old boy destroyed a whole family (27.09.96)

Evening Standard, 27th September 1996
by Eileen Fairweather

 When Nick and Sally Peters opened the door of their Essex home to the 15-year-old boy and his social worker, they were glad to feel here was another troubled youngster they could help. The loving, down-to-earth couple had four young children of their own, a modest but cosy home, and had already successfully fostered six teenagers under a new, experimental scheme run by Essex social services.

 That evening, as a welcoming treat for the disturbed teenager they hoped to help, they gave him £5 to watch a League football match at Southend.

 Within a month, the family’s world was completely shattered. The tall, bespectacled boy they trustingly took into their care brutally raped their children – all four, one by one. First the two youngest girls, aged eight and nine, then their 12-year-old boy and finally the 11-year-old girl.

 They would never have accepted him into their home, they say, if Essex County Council’s social services department had told them the truth. He was a known sexual offender who came into care after indecently assaulting his seven-year-old sister. In fact they were to discover much later that the boy’s own psychiatrist had warned that he should not be fostered by a family with children.

 But the only real warning the Peters can now recall being told about the boy is that he could occasionally be a ‘bully’ and a liar. He was, they understood, a victim of abuse – not a perpetrator.

 Next month the Peters are due to confront Essex County Council and social worker Tony Golden in the High Court. No one disputes the basic facts. The boy has already admitted abusing their children and has been convicted. The council admits the family has suffered terribly. But it denies it has any responsibility.

 Three and a half years on, the family has not received a penny in compensation. Yet according to medical reports all are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and illness and the burden of supporting their terrified children have left the parents unable to work. They have also had to move house to help exorcise the memories and make their children feel safer: the boy threatened to find and kill them if they told.

 And now, tragically, the parents have parted under the strain. The children are living with their father and their mother is seeking to build a new life while maintaining contact with them.

 Nick and Sally Peters (their names have been changed, to protect their children) had worked for years for Essex social services, mostly as unqualified carers in hostels and playschemes run by the social services department.

 They were accepted in 1992 on to its new Specialist Adolescent Foster Carer scheme for difficult teenagers. These were children described as disturbed, emotionally scarred, who need devoted attention. The Peters supported the social services’ desire to get children who would normally be kept in care out of impersonal institutions and into foster homes. They regarded themselves as sufficiently skilled to provide stability for more damaged youngsters. ‘Usually they had been badly abused,’ says Mr Peters.

 ‘We were their last chance.’

 During their two months’ training they made it clear, they say, that they could never run the risk of accept an abused child that could, in turn, become an abuser himself. They were assured this would not be expected to accept children who presented a danger to their own family.

 On 6 April 1993 the Peters were rung by Tony Golden, who had been the boy’s social worker for two years, and asked to accept Tom for a six-week assessment. It seemed another badly-hurt child needed their care.

 Mr Peters was told Tom’s father was a convicted paedophile. Mr Peters asked his usual questions but, he says, was reassured: Tom was not an abuser. Very soon Mr and Mrs Peters began to feel something was wrong. ‘Tom did not appear to be following the pattern of other sexually abused children that we had had at our home.’

 They had expected a vulnerable boy in need of coaxing and support; Tom was aggressive and violent, and chillingly, once asked Mrs Peters if she was scared to be alone with him.

 The Peters noticed their normally happy, relaxed children were becoming fearful and withdrawn. Then Tom, almost casually, said he had been accused of rape by a girl in care. ‘He didn’t say he didn’t do it. He said nothing was proven, which was strange, ‘ said Mr. Peters. But it alarmed the family.

 On Friday 7 May, three years ago, Mr Peters rang Tom’s social worker to discuss his unease. The only person available at the social services office was a woman who introduced herself as Tom’s counsellor. ‘We hadn’t even been told Tom was in counselling – never mind what for.’ For the first time, a dreadful suspicion hit Mr Peters, ‘that in fact Tom had committed offences against their children’. He asked for him to be removed.

 Tom was taken to the home of another carer, one without children and the Peters’ world began crumbling. Gently – fearfully – they questioned their children and, over the next two days, they learned Tom had abused two of their daughters.

 He had told their youngest, their baby, that she would be taken into care if she told ‘and further abuse would be done to her all the time’. He had told the other girl she would never see her parents again if she had confessed about the abuse.

 They still didn’t know that he had hurt their older children too.

 The Peters contacted the police and the girls were interviewed on video.

 The parents had to watch as their children disclosed yet more horrors. It would be months, however, until they discovered the full story. The family learned that Tom was now at a nearby children’s home. It had no security to speak of, he kept absconding and their children became terrified that he would come to their home.

 Social services – who still hadn’t admitted Tom’s history to the family – arranged for them to go to a holiday camp for a break. It was cut short when their son, who they had not suspected had become a victim, too, finally admitted Tom had also abused him.

 It is difficult to quantify suffering but the 12-year-old son’s is striking. Tom had told him if he submitted he would be ‘queer’ – a fear by which he is now tortured – but, in return, Tom would leave his little sisters alone.

 A child abuse consultant said the previously ‘happy, carefree boy’ had been transformed by the ‘terrorising threats involving the safety of his sisters and parents’, and feels ‘excessively guilty’ at his failure to protect them.

 The family cut short their holiday and returned to the police child protection video suite. A sympathetic officer asked their older daughter had she too been abused. Her father says: ‘She just buckled.’

 Social services called a case conference, which the parents had to attend, to decide whether their children should be put on the child protection register. ‘You’re made to feel like you’re the guilty one at these things.’

 It was here that the stunned parents learned for the first time that Tom had come into care after sexually abusing his own sister. Due to his age – he was then 12 – he received only a police caution.

 They also learned that girls at the children’s home where Tom was placed after he was removed from their family had described being abused by him.

 Documents show the police ‘encountered difficulties’ when they tried to interview them, ‘being told we have to speak to the staff first’.

 Tom denied abusing anyone and, arrogantly, alleged that the father was in fact the abuser. Mr Peters was rung by the police and advised to surrender himself for questioning.

 ‘I was still reeling from what had happened to my children. Now I found out Tom had accused me.’

 Mr Peters was questioned for two hours. He was released but it was to be a month or so before he was released from arrest. The police took the unusual step of placing in writing the fact that he was completely innocent.

 One officer was ‘so upset he said the only solution to Tom was a bullet in the head’.

 The children meanwhile had begun therapy with an independent specialist.

 Gradually they disclosed the real extent of Tom’s abuse. It is due to this specialist that he was eventually convicted. She sent her file to the police.

 They told Tom he could face further charges for attempted rape and buggery.

 He agreed to plea-bargain and, to save the children from the further horror of giving evidence in court, this was accepted.

 He was arrested, sent to a bail hostel and on 6 June at Basildon Youth Court admitted indecent assault against the two younger girls and received a two-year supervision order.

 One thing had kept the Peters going: ‘Social services promised us that Tom would be made to accept treatment as a sex offender. We wanted other people’s children to be protected.’

 Instead he was sent to the ultra-liberal Hartsdene trust in Stevenage, which immediately treated him to a holiday in Cornwall and gave him falconry and flying lessons.

 Three years on, the father and mother, though separated, are still seeking justice. Documents shown to the Evening Standard confirm that originally the council apologised to the family and actively invited them to seek compensation.

 It also sacked the social worker who had sent Tom to the family, and his manager. But the council’s attitude has hardened since the family rejected an out-of-court offer of £60,000, estimated at £5,000 for each parent’s loss of earnings and stress, and £12,500 for each abused child.

 They didn’t want a vast amount more: they wanted, above all, for the council to admit liability.

 Mr Peters says: ‘They had an obligation to tell us everything they knew about a child. If we’d known this boy’s background, we would never have taken him in. These people in social services must be held accountable for what they do to people’s lives. If coach and train drivers can be held accountable for disasters, so can social workers.’

 Instead, in May 1995, Essex reinstated the social worker. Shortly afterwards he left, with a good reference. He contends the family was thoroughly briefed on the boy’s background and they knowingly took a sex abuser into their home.

 For Mr Peters, this was the final straw. He and his wife could no longer face working for the authority and became unemployed. The children meanwhile are still ‘suffering nightmares and taking lots off time off school’.

 They have had to move schools, which meant more uprooting and loss of friends when they most needed them. Their son was prescribed anti-depressants, their oldest girl ‘is now at an age when her friends are getting interested in boys but she won’t go near any’. Their brother sometimes sleeps on the floor of the girls’ room, still too scared to sleep alone.

 Today they are well-mannered, pleasant children and their terrible experiences are not obvious on first meeting. Their real long-term losses are more subtle. One of the two psychological assessments demanded by the council’s insurers described the huge effect on their mother.

 Sally was described as a previously ‘happy, busy and competent mother’ with a warm, loving marriage. Following the abuse she devoted herself to absorbing herchildren’s terrors and her husband’s guilt at having been unable to protect them. The experts’ prognosis however was that she would only be able to go on putting her own needs last for so long, and then profound depression hit her.

 This proved right. Earlier this year the Peters marriage broke down and she left home.

 Nick Peters’ bitterness at the council is now total. ‘I can’t understand why they have prolonged this for so long. We wouldn’t be in this situation if they hadn’t and these kids wouldn’t be feeling motherless. They’re just faceless people in suits, who only care about money: lives don’t come into it.’

 Tom is now free, living in lodgings. He likes falconry.

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