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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Children in the care of Lambeth Council Investigation Report


B.4: Increased risk of sexual abuse

77. Adults were given access to children in the care of Lambeth Council without appropriate checks or supervision. Hook was able to secure a live-in position in a Shirley Oaks cottage, despite little being known about him. LA-A138 told us that a man (Clarke) – who he assumed was a member of staff at Shirley Oaks but later discovered was a volunteer – visited and played football with the children; he also allowed children to drive his car while sitting on his lap and would indecently touch them while they did so.[1] LA-F39 was employed by Lambeth Council in 1990, despite a conviction (and five-year prison sentence) for unlawful wounding.[2] He went on to work at other children’s homes in Lambeth, including Monkton Street and Chestnut Road. He was the subject of allegations of sexual abuse at Chestnut Road which were considered in the Evans report in 2000. The Evans report noted that:

some senior managers of the Directorate had been oblivious to the potential danger that a convicted criminal with offences such as those committed by [LA-F39] posed to vulnerable children. As can be seen the appointing officer was perfectly aware of the convictions from as early as June 1990 and was also aware that [LA-F39] had falsified his declaration in respect of these – in itself a serious matter.[3]

78. Shirley Oaks and South Vale exposed children to the risk of sexual abuse. Isolation, violence, intimidation and humiliation would almost certainly have deterred many children from reporting sexual abuse at the time. Other children from these homes did report sexual abuse. The evidence demonstrates that some staff had suspicions or even knowledge that children were being sexually abused. A common issue in both case study homes was that where sexual abuse was disclosed or suspected, it was not adequately responded to. Failures to respond to allegations perpetuated sexual abuse.

79. Another common theme is the extent to which lack of oversight or intervention exposed children to the risk of sexual abuse. Both homes were “organised and engineered to preserve the interests of those with power and authority rather than protecting children in their care”.[4] This is demonstrated by attitudes and responses to racism and the consistent priority given to the interests of staff above those of children.

80. There was also a lack of professional concern from some Lambeth Council social workers for children in care.

81. LA-A138 said he would be told that his social worker was coming to see him, only for them not to attend – he felt that he was just “a number”.[5] He did not disclose abuse by multiple perpetrators at Shirley Oaks. When he was 12 or 13 years old, a member of staff at Shirley Oaks started to show an interest in him:

there was one occasion when I was sat in her car with her, and she basically put her hand on my leg and said she wanted to sleep with me”.[6]

82. LA-A138 said he did not tell anyone “because they wouldn’t have believed me”. His sense of his social workers was that they were not interested in his well-being:

All they were trying to do was get you off their books, get rid of the problem”.[7]

A closed environment

83. Shirley Oaks operated as a self-sufficient village, giving children little access to the outside world. Schooling, leisure and medical facilities were provided on-site. Many children referred to not leaving the site at all.[8] LA-A158, a victim of long-term sexual abuse, recalled:

we were very isolated at Shirley Oaks. You went to school on site until you were 11 years old. Everything was provided for. We never went shopping for clothes or food. We had our own swimming pool so we never had to leave site even, for swimming lessons. We went on holiday for two weeks in the summer, which is probably the only time we saw proper shops.[9]

84. South Vale also operated on its own terms and with little external scrutiny. It was an oppressive place for children to live, more like a place of punishment than a home for children. From the outset of its opening in 1967, South Vale appears to have been a restrictive and punitive environment. LA-A449, who was in care at South Vale in the early 1970s, described not being allowed to leave without staff present. He felt locked up and imprisoned.[10] LA-A300 also described South Vale as being like a prison in the late 1970s:

Literally, every door was locked behind you. I just always remember, you went through that door, they locked it; you went through the next door, they locked it.[11]

An early record shows the foster carers of one child to have described children as “virtually imprisoned in Southvale”.[12] They also raised the concern with the children’s officer that their foster child described having clothes taken away from her at South Vale and being made to wear the institution’s clothes. This worried them as they had been taught by the childcare officer that this removed a child’s sense of identity.

85. Issues about the manipulation and humiliation of children were raised, in 2013, by a former temporary staff member at South Vale in the 1980s, who explained to the police its operation. Many children stayed at South Vale for years. It was staffed by individuals untrained in social care and childcare. Favouritism was displayed towards certain children, particularly by Paul. The former staff member also said that there was a culture of not believing children at South Vale, justifying this by referring to their histories and using their past experiences against them. The more the children raised concerns, the less likely they would be believed.[13]

86. These observations were an echo of the serious concerns raised by two members of South Vale staff who came forward in 1989, resulting in the Zephyrine inquiry. One said that the environment was punitive with excessive control, emotional and physical abuse, and inappropriate restraint. Children were called “animals” by South Vale staff, “humiliated, intimidated and bullied” (as well as having their care histories used against them or mentioned in front of other children), with “all the spark gone from them”.[14] The care worker tried to talk to senior staff at South Vale about her concerns but was told that “We do things our way here, and if you don’t like it, leave”.[15]

87. As a result, in July 1989, Lambeth Council initiated an internal inquiry to investigate allegations from staff members of racism and sexism, as well as poor childcare and management practices. The panel was chaired by Edgar Zephyrine, principal manager, community and voluntary services.[16] Its conclusions were published in January 1990, in a report entitled Quality and Equality: The Report of the Enquiry into the South Vale Assessment Centre (the Zephyrine report).[17] It was critical of the management culture and practices at South Vale. It recommended that the centre be closed for up to three months in order to allow a restructure of the management, staff and working practices. However, there were flaws in the inquiry.

87.1. There was no analysis of the allegations made by care workers which had prompted the investigation.

87.2. Sexual abuse was not addressed.[18] The report noted that there was a strong view that LA-F8 was favoured by the officer in charge and received special privileges, but it failed to mention that it had been reported to the panel that LA-F8 had been found on a bed with a child.[19] Mr Zephyrine later confirmed that the allegation was made to his panel, but that they accepted LA-F8’s version of events.[20] That the Zephyrine report does not mention the allegation or the basis on which they preferred LA-F8’s version of events demonstrates poor judgement and lack of child focus. The Zephyrine report should have considered explicitly whether there was “a potential for sexual abuse” at South Vale, and whether the “environment was safe and … children could speak out” if they needed to.[21] Instead, it focussed on “staff and management and about keeping control rather than about how you create a kind of good home for children.[22]

87.3. Despite its terms of reference empowering it to hear evidence from children, the panel did not speak to any children.[23] They did speak to 50 members of staff.[24] As a result, the focus of the Zephyrine report was the staff. For example, it referred to staff not seeing the regime as institutional or repressive. It identified that children were not allowed to attend an external therapeutic group if they misbehaved; they had to wear night clothes from an early point in the evening; they lacked any free time not under observation; and they were silenced during meals.[25] Despite this, as Ms Hudson accepted, the Zephyrine report “dismissed and minimised” allegations of emotional and physical abuse.[26]

87.4. The recommendations arising from the Zephyrine report were “weak”, with little clarity as to what was wrong and what was needed to put things right.[27] Detective Superintendent Brian Tomkins, senior investigating officer at Operation Bell, described the Zephyrine report as being shallow, with little depth to the questioning of witnesses. The fact that no children were interviewed suggested that it had been intended only as a means of changing the regime at the home, not to identify and investigate malpractice.[28]

Violence and intimidation

88. In both homes children experienced violence and intimidation. Children’s lives at Shirley Oaks were bleak and, in some cases at least, they endured hardship or suffering worse than that which brought them into care. There was little evidence that the house parents provided supportive and nurturing environments.

88.1. LA-A449 was abused between 1976 and 1978, and recalled Shirley Oaks as a threatening and violent environment:

I remember often witnessing the children crying or cowering in the corners of the home. Children were scared on site.[29]

88.2. LA-A354 lived at Shirley Oaks in the mid-1970s. He told us that the mistreatment and abuse he experienced there came to feel normal:

when you start hearing those words and that treatment, you know, the punishment methods they used to use, you think it’s normal. You think that’s how everybody else is treated … ”.[30]

88.3. LA-A299 was taken into care in the late 1970s when he was just under eight years old.[31] When he first arrived, he was taken to see the doctor at Shirley Oaks, who sexually assaulted him. LA-A299 told the house mother, and he said that she ensured he did not see the doctor alone again.[32] LA-A299 also described bullying and intimidation by other children, which escalated to him being raped by another child. His house father at Shirley Oaks forced him and his siblings, who were Muslim, to eat pork.[33]

88.4. LA-A325, who was sexually abused in the 1970s and lived at Shirley Oaks as well as other care homes in Lambeth, told us:

I thought that being in care would mean that I would be treated better than I was at home. In fact, I was treated a lot worse.[34]

89. LA-A354 was placed at Shirley Oaks in the mid-1970s, when he was four or five years old. He told us about a man who put children on his lap to drive his car at Shirley Oaks, and also put children’s hands on his genitals:

I didn’t know how wrong it was – because I was so young, I didn’t understand that.[35]

He also told us about everyday cruelties and humiliations at Shirley Oaks. If children were caught talking after they had gone to bed, they were made to empty out the contents of the kitchen cupboards and replace them correctly or be made to start again – “That could take hours. That could take most of the night”.[36]

90. If children were heard to speak after they had gone to bed, LA-A138 (who was placed at Shirley Oaks aged three) said that they were made to stand in a locker room facing a wall in a particular position, such as standing with their arms out.[37] He described children being hit over the knuckles or head with cutlery at mealtimes.[38] When LA-A138 moved to a new cottage at Shirley Oaks, a female member of staff was very violent and would hit children – he described it as a “real eye-opener”, adding that “it was really violent stuff”.[39]

91. South Vale was managed in an authoritarian, punitive style.

91.1. Russell Specterman was in care from the age of 11 in the 1970s and 1980s. He was placed at Shirley Oaks, South Vale, in foster care and at other care homes. He recalled being constantly frightened at South Vale. He said that staff in charge were violent and spiteful. One staff member told him he would end up in prison just like his father.[40]

91.2. LA-A309 was placed at South Vale, Shirley Oaks and Chevington in the 1970s and 1980s. She described South Vale as a horrible place:

Most of the staff were horrible to you and did and said things to humiliate you.”[41]

The shock and stress led LA-A309 to start bedwetting, which in turn led to her being punished. She remembered having her head shaved to prevent her from running away.[42] She also said that the worst thing she ever witnessed was at South Vale, the rape of an eight-year-old girl. A group of older boys forced another boy with learning difficulties to rape the girl. LA-A309 was forced to watch and threatened with being next.[43]

Racism: policy and practice

92. In February 1980, a report prepared by a race relations adviser and presented to the Social Services Committee noted the concern within the black community in Lambeth about appropriate standards of care for black children in local authority care. The report highlighted the specific needs of black children and the need to employ staff able to meet their needs.[44] On 15 April 1981, a further report – Black Children in Lambeth Residential Care – was presented to the Social Services Committee. It stated that “the numbers of black children in residential care are disproportionate to their representation in the overall child population”. The report made a number of recommendations, including the need to “recruit more black staff for residential establishments” and “maximise the number of black foster and adoptive parents”.[45]

93. Lambeth Council went on to produce the Good Practice Guide for Working with Black Families and Black Children in Care.[46] This referred to it being “essential that work with black families and black children in care fully takes into account the dynamics and cultural milieu of black families as well as recognising the impact of racism”. With regard to placements of children with substitute families, it emphasised that an “essential ingredient of any substitute home for black children should be the ability of the placement to encourage and enhance positive black identity in the child”.

94. In 1986, Lambeth Council set out its same-race placements policy. The stated aim of the policy was that “no child should remain in residential care without a family placement being tried and that the family placement should reflect the child’s own ethnic origin and family background”. The timescale for ensuring that black children should be placed with black families was set as being by 1 April 1988.[47]

95. The reality was that during 1990 and 1991, 85 percent of children who lived at South Vale were black.[48] Their disproportionate representation in a home like South Vale demonstrated that the longstanding policy aim of placing black children in foster care was not being met.

96. One of the terms of reference of the Zephyrine report was to investigate racism at South Vale. It reported on racism at chapter 7 (‘South Vale and Equal Opportunities’). One member of staff referred to children’s requests for food appropriate to their ethnic background being “trivialised and ignored”. Black children were made to use the same skin and hair products as white children, showing a “total disregard” for their specific needs.[49] The findings about children (chapter 7, section 1, subsection ‘Racism and Child Care Practice’) included the availability of “ethnic meals”, the absence of a diverse range of books and magazines and that staff lacked awareness of Lambeth Council’s Good Practice Guide for Working With Black Families and Children in Care.[50]

97. Ms Hudson explained that there had been “multiple allegations” about Paul’s racist behaviour and about the inappropriateness of him working in a children’s home.[51] In 1984, Paul was given a written warning following a disciplinary process into allegations that he had made a racist comment to a child and other inappropriate comments.[52] An allegation was also made in 1990 by a residential social worker which referred to Paul being racist.[53] A parent also alleged that Paul had used offensive, racist language towards them.[54] It appears that Paul went on sick leave and then took up an administrative position in Area 8. He was not suspended until a police investigation in 1992 revealed him to have been in possession of indecent images of children.[55]

98. The evidence we heard demonstrated that once in care, far from their needs being given specific consideration or a sense of identity being encouraged, children from black, Asian and ethnically diverse backgrounds experienced overt racism. This had a lasting impact.

98.1. LA-A354 told us that staff at Shirley Oaks had “no fear of using racist words”, and that these words became so normal that they lost significance to him.[56] Other children also experienced racism. LA-A24 also described regular racist abuse at Shirley Oaks. He said that one house parent made up racist phrases about him which the other children would copy.

being at Shirley Oaks made my whole life hell.[57]

98.2. One house father at Shirley Oaks called LA-A138 racially abusive names and would not let him participate in games.[58] He also told LA-A138 that he:

didn’t want me in the house because there were enough black people in the house and he didn’t want any more and he wasn’t the sort of person that felt like black kids and white kids should play together”.[59]

98.3. LA-A309, who was placed at Shirley Oaks in the mid-1970s, said that her house parents told her that children of mixed parentage ended up in care, that races were not supposed to mix, and that the Bible forbade mixed relationships.[60]

98.4. LA-A456 was placed at Shirley Oaks when she was 12 years of age. She said that LA-F322 raped the girl with whom she shared a bedroom, and described hearing awful sounds coming from the girl’s bed and shaking with fear. LA-F322 went on to sexually abuse her. She could not believe that this would happen in a children’s home.[61] Her house parents at Shirley Oaks who were white would not let her play with their daughter because of her ethnicity. Staff were racist and would say they would make her “clean and white”. Racial abuse was a daily occurrence.

98.5. LA-A304 was placed in various care homes and alleged sexual abuse by a male member of staff at a care home between approximately 1979 and 1982, involving forced oral sex and digital penetration. She described being racially abused during this sexual abuse. She recalled Shirley Oaks staff witnessing the abuse:

On one occasion, the lady I mentioned walked into the kitchen and saw us in a cupboard with the man and walked straight back out again. She didn’t do anything to stop what was going on or ask what was going on.

She told the house mother about a cigarette burn inflicted by her abuser, but she was told that “I shouldn’t tell tales … She told me if I complained no-one would believe me”.[62]

LA-A304 describes never having her cultural needs met and the house mother being unable to manage her hair, so much so that she cut it off so she did not have to comb it.[63]


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