Councils ‘failed in their statutory duty’ to protect children who they should have been helpingMegan Orito
Councils ‘failed in their statutory duty’ to protect children who they should have been helping.
They have been told they should now assess the current risk to children.
The two councils looking after children in care were guilty of a catalogue of failures to protect those that they should have been helping and nurturing.
That was the damning verdict against Nottingham City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council in the IICSA report published today.
“For more than five decades, the councils failed in their statutory duty to protect children in their care from sexual abuse,” it said.
“They needed to be nurtured, cared for and protected by adults they could trust. Instead, the councils exposed them to the risk, and reality, of sexual abuse perpetrated primarily by predatory residential staff and foster carers.”
It said that:
* In residential care, there were poor recruitment practices, few qualified staff and little in-service training. The report added: “It was as if anyone could carry out the important work of being a substitute parent to damaged children.”
* Whilst set standards of conduct and child protection procedures were put in place, “staff ignored these standards and procedures with impunity”.
* Neither of the councils learned from their mistakes, despite commissioning many reviews which made clear what changes were needed to stop the sexual abuse of children. “Many of these reviews included recommendations for change which were accepted but rarely acted upon.”
* To the present day the councils do not have a process for the regular reporting of child sexual abuse allegations, or the action taken in response. As a result, understanding of the scale of allegations made over a period lasting over half a century has been limited and inconsistent.
* Despite improvements, there continue to be weaknesses in foster care practice in both councils. These include poor joint-agency working, inconsistent decision-making, and failure to refer cases to the fostering panel or to notify Ofsted or councillors.
It adds about the Beechwood children’s home in Mapperley that “staff were threatening and violent, physical abuse was commonplace and children were frightened.
“Sexualised behaviour by staff was tolerated or overlooked, [and] managers at Beechwood, notably Ken Rigby [deputy superintendent from 1975 to 1993], were either complacent or deliberately ignored the plight of children under their care.
“Some staff raised concerns about the behaviour of colleagues but were not taken seriously; others witnessed colleagues acting inappropriately towards children but did nothing.”
The county council looked after all children in care in the whole of Nottinghamshire between 1978 and 1998. Outside of these times, the city council was responsible for Nottingham itself, and the county for other areas.
While the report largely looks at the joint failings of the two councils, IICSA highlighted the different approaches they took over apologising for what had taken place.
The city council “should have apologised for the sexual abuse of children in its care a long time ago”, it said, adding that it had been “guarded and slow to apologise or express appreciation for the level of distress felt by complainants”.
And it described a comment made in 2018 by then Leader Jon Collins that “we will apologise when there is something to apologise for” as “crass”.
It made two recommendations, which the councils need to respond to within six months.
These involve assessing the risks posed by residential staff and foster carers, whether employed directly or through external agencies; and (for the city only) commissioning an independent evaluation of its practices regarding harmful sexual behaviour between children.
NOTTINGHAMSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL
Colin Pettigrew, corporate director for children and families at the county council, admitted that children in Nottinghamshire had been “systemically failed at all levels of the organisation”.
“Some of that failure was actually criminal acts of sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse,” he said. “Some of that failure was not responding to the evidence of that.”
But still, seeing the report in black and white made what had happened even more stark.
“This was always going to be a shockingly bad report,” he said. “[But] when you spend three-and-a-half years contributing towards such a long investigation, and 15 days hearing the courageous testimonies of victims survivors in a public hearing – many if not all of which were terribly harrowing – and then you see all of that brought together in one document, is has an additional shocking effect.”
He said the council had fulfilled the three pledges it made at the hearings in October, namely that:
* Councillors would visit care homes when children were actually at home (Cllr Philip Owen, chair of the children and young people’s committee, had told the inquiry that inspections take place ‘when it’s convenient to the home’);
* The council would end its practice of pleading time limitation as a defence to claims of compensation;
* Every child the county settles with will receive a personal apology from Mr Pettigrew; and he would personally apologise to victims and survivors with whom the council had already reached a settlement them if they wanted this.
(Image: Nottingham Post)
But have things really changed on the ground, especially in the crucial area of ongoing support?
“The inquiry heard from many victims and survivors who said that in the 70s, 80s and 90s there were barriers to reporting their abuse,” he said. “These included not being seen alone by their visiting social worker, not being believed and being in physical fear.
“Children now see their own social worker alone, and our systems and quality assurance processes check this to be the case.
“It is now easier for young people to report any concerns they have about their care. We are about launch a new app to ensure children feel they can speak out in confidence.
“There’s been a significant improvement in the engagement of victims and survivors, and in beginning to meet some of their counselling support needs.
“Our colleagues from the CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) are looking to be able to offer personal health budgets that will allow victims and survivors to have an amount of money so that they can go out and procure their own counsellor that meets their needs – rather than being offered an NHS counsellor where there is a six, nine or 12-month waiting list.
“What our health colleagues tell us is that there’s plenty of counsellors out there, it’s the NHS pathway has got built-in delay to that.”
(Image: Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post)
He admitted: “I’m not sure if we’ll ever get to the point where every victim and survivor feels satisfied that we have done enough in terms of either our effort or our investment.”
But he also said it might not be clear to some survivors that the compensation payout from the council in some cases included settlement for therapeutic needs.
“It would appear that neither us nor their own solicitors have necessarily told the recipient of that money that within that budget there is an amount for therapy. Understandably – and this isn’t the victims and survivors’ responsibility, it’s ours and their solicitors – they then go on and use that money for a whole range of things, but still have some therapeutic needs.”
For many survivors of abuse, one of the biggest problems has been getting hold of their own files, which in some cases have apparently been lost or irretrievably damaged. So was there a deliberate policy of getting rid of damning information contained within files?
“I haven’t heard evidence at a strategic or an organisational level that that was the case,” he said. “I did hear evidence, and I’ve seen reports, that suggest that at a more local level records were not available for a particular period – but they were before and they were after – regarding for instance the children’s homes’ management of some cases. And if I was a victim or survivor and I believed there was a conspiracy, it would speak to that agenda.”
Council leader Kay Cutts added: “I don’t know if any instructions were given out to lose or destroy files. We had local government reorganisation in 1974 and then again in 1998. I imagine at those times files were misplaced, lost, destroyed for whatever reason because it was a different council, it was starting all over again, if you like.”
(Image: Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post)
Concerns also remain about older children who are moved to accommodation – often outside their own area – which is not regulated.
“What we’ve doing over the last few years is trying to make it more likely that Nottinghamshire children who are looked after are looked after close to home,” he said.
“I know this is a national debate, particularly with regards to children who are care leavers who find themselves in semi-independent accommodation. That debate goes as to whether that should happen, or whether those should be subject to regulation, which means Ofsted inspection.
“Currently they are not. I think that’s a gap, and a vulnerability, for the country.”
As for the legacy for the area, Mr Pettigrew said the whole experience of going through the inquiry had been beneficial.
“What has happened in Nottinghamshire because of the independent inquiry is that a very bright light has been shone onto a very dark period for Nottinghamshire,” he said.
“I think that’s helpful. I think we’ve learned from that experience in a way that other local authorities – who might have been the authority that got the call – haven’t had [from] that experience.
“The council welcomes any recommendations from the inquiry that will help us to keep children and young people safe.
“Practices have improved over time, but we will never be complacent and will continue to improve and strengthen safeguarding and protection of children in the care of this council.”
NOTTINGHAM CITY COUNCIL
Both the leader and chief executive of the city council have had an involvement with children’s services in Nottingham which goes back a number of years.
Leader Councillor David Mellen was cabinet member for children’s services for more than a decade, from 2008 until earlier this year; while chief executive Ian Curryer was corporate director for children’s services from 2009 to 2012.
So should there be a sense of personal responsibility about what took place or the response to it?
“There are things that happened when I was portfolio holder for children services that are to be regretted,” said Cllr Mellen, “and if we could go back and change things we would. But I believe I’ve been part of a change to make things better here in Nottingham.
“I think there were members of staff who didn’t listen to children clearly enough. I believe that we have moved on significantly from that.
“I believe we have a caring attitude here at the city council; significantly better than maybe in the past.”
(Image: Nottingham Post /Ian Hodkinson)
He said the council would do “everything it can” to meet the report recommendations – although it needed to speak to Government about the one concerning private agencies, because they were not under the council’s control.
“Clearly it’s a big report and we need to take our time to read it properly and respond to it, but on first reading it is not a good report for the way children were looked after in Nottingham.
“And it has some ongoing suggestions that we still have lessons to learn so that we do everything we can to keep our children in care safe.”
One of the major issues highlighted at the inquiry was the fact that the council only issued a full public apology two weeks before the hearings began.
The leader said today: “I’m sorry for any further distress we caused to those who would have welcomed a public apology from us sooner – we didn’t get that right.
“We should have closed Beechwood earlier. We should have apologised earlier.
“We will look at the report to make sure that, together with the county council, we are improving, and we are doing things that we can to make sure the experience of children in care is one which is a better one than our record would suggest.”
And he added: “This inquiry has carried out some incredibly important work to understand why abuse took place in the past so that lessons can be learnt and survivors can have their voice heard and gain some sense of closure.
“Many councils across the country will have issues like this of some kind. Therefore we all need to learn together, through organisations like the Local Government Association.
“And Ofsted, I believe, needs to be perhaps more helpful to councils, in terms of not just making a judgement but suggesting ways they can improve.”
(Image: Nottingham Post)
Chief executive Ian Curryer, meanwhile, addressed a concern that had been raised at the inquiry over whether strategy meetings between the police and two councils after the abuse was beginning to come to light had tried to limit awareness of the problem, or downplay it in any way.
“In those meetings our job was to make sure that a very clear steer and message went out, which was that we had to accept these issues as true, we had to be responsive, and we had to prepare to put in place the support that was required,” he said.
“It wasn’t about denying they happened, it wasn’t about trying to protect our position and push people away.
“We are deeply sorry that city council care homes were not the safe place for children in the past that they should have been, and now are.
“There’s no doubt that there were serious failings which led to abuse, and the impact of that has lasted a lifetime for survivors, which is a terrible personal trauma for them and a dreadful indictment of past practices which allowed it to happen.
“I have met with survivors and their representatives since the inquiry hearings last year, to listen to them, apologise again to them and understand how our response to them has not always been what they wanted or should have been able to expect.
“We are always learning and striving to do things better and I hope they agree that things are changing and improving so that they and others facing similar issues can have the reassurance that they will always be taken seriously, always listened to and given a clear and simple way of accessing the support that they need.”
(Image: Nottingham Post)
The need for ongoing counselling support is one of the areas which is consistently raised by survivors of abuse.
“I’ve heard very clearly from survivors about their need for ongoing and long-term support,” Mr Curryer said. In terms of where that comes from, it is still different at different levels.
“We will put in place the appropriate resources that it’s our responsibility to fund. We’re not in the right position to commission and put in place particular support for mental health issues for post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s the responsibility of the health service.
“For us it’s about making sure that the relevant counselling support is in place, and that the long-term support for continuing with their daily lives is in place. I know that this will still cost us additional resources and we will need to find that.
“But this is still quite a small group of people compared to the whole group of people who receive social care services. It will be a challenge for our budget, but our budgets are challenged anyway dealing with the vast array of people who need our support.”
Like his counterpart at the county, he also said there had been no policy of getting rid of records which should have been kept.
“We’ve found records for some people from a period,” he said, “and for other people from exactly the same period we haven’t been able to find those records.
“But that, I’m afraid, is to do with the poor state of record-keeping and the vagaries of how we did things in the past, as opposed to any deliberate attempt to hold back information.”
And he added: “I don’t think there’s anybody left in this council now who was responsible for the periods that were particularly highlighted in IICSA as very, very challenging. Those people are not here.”
* Councillor Mellen said anyone who has been or is being abused, or knows someone who has been or is being abused, should get in touch with the council on 0300 131 0300.
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