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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Children in the care of Lambeth Council Investigation Report

Contents

K.1: Conclusions

1. Lambeth Council now accepts that children in its care were sexually abused and that it failed them. At the Inquiry’s public hearing, Ms Annie Hudson, strategic director of children’s services from May 2016 to 31 March 2020, gave a full apology on behalf of Lambeth Council, in which she acknowledged that it “created and oversaw conditions … where appalling and absolutely shocking and horrendous abuse was perpetrated”.[1]

Nature and extent of allegations of child sexual abuse

2. The sexual and other abuse of children was widespread in Lambeth Council’s residential and foster care during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Lambeth Council is aware of 705 former residents of three children’s homes examined in this investigation (Shirley Oaks, South Vale and Angell Road) who have made complaints of child sexual abuse. The true number of children sexually abused over the decades is likely to be significantly higher.

3. The Inquiry heard evidence from a number of witnesses describing their experiences while under the care of Lambeth Council. This included accounts of rapes and indecent assaults, and sexual abuse by multiple individuals. Children in care were also made the subject of child sexual abuse images. Witnesses spoke of the profound, lifelong consequences of the abuse being exacerbated by other issues linked to the poor quality of care in Lambeth. Many also described violence, intimidation and racism, which formed part of their daily lives.

4. A number of victims reported sexual abuse to adults at the time – such as to other staff or their social workers – but in many cases this did not result in the investigation or prosecution of alleged offenders, or any disciplinary action being taken. Some children were too frightened to tell anyone, or were threatened with violence by the perpetrator if they reported the abuse. Others thought it was not worthwhile to report sexual abuse as a result of a dismissive response to a previous disclosure or because they thought nothing would change.

5. For many children, living in care did nothing to change their lives for the better. For others, far from being a sanctuary from abuse or neglect, what they experienced there was worse.

Child protection failures by Lambeth Council

6. Children are usually admitted into the care of a local authority because they have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, significant harm, including abuse or neglect within their family. Not all children in Lambeth Council’s care were there because of a risk at home. In the early years, some children were from families whose problems were rooted in poverty or poor housing. From the 1980s onwards, too many children were taken into care because of a lack of family support, poor planning and poor children’s social care practice, often carried out by unqualified staff.

7. Children should be safe, nurtured and protected in care, but many Lambeth Council staff in children’s social care appeared to demonstrate a callous disregard for the vulnerable children they were paid to look after.

8. In many instances, their needs, their well-being and their childhoods appeared to be of little or no importance. LA-A309 told us: “I felt from an early age that my feelings were inconsequential and of no value and that my pain doesn’t matter. It was clear to me from an early age that no-one really cared about me”.[2] LA-A138 said: “they didn’t care about you … nobody cared”.[3] This lack of care had devastating consequences for many children, leading to emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and in some cases death.

9. Children with complex needs and communication difficulties are among the most vulnerable in society, including to sexual abuse. This is particularly the case when adults lack the training and skills to appreciate what the child is trying to convey. In 1986, LA-A26’s allegations of sexual abuse were discounted by the Metropolitan Police Service and initially by Lambeth Council because they could not understand them and made no effort to find ways of doing so. The additional needs of vulnerable child victims were not recognised within the criminal justice system and trained intermediaries were not used to enable effective access to justice.

10. Foster care did not routinely provide a safe alternative for children in care. For many years, foster carers were not adequately vetted and some placements were arranged informally. The Social Services Inspectorate (SSI) reported in 2000 that potentially large numbers of children had not been allocated a social worker, were not placed with approved foster carers and had none of the protection afforded by regular visiting, monitoring or statutory reviews.[4] This exposed these children to an increased risk of sexual and other abuse.

11. At Shirley Oaks, children lived in small groups under the care of ‘house parents’, most of whom were unqualified. In addition to physical abuse, some of these house parents sexually abused children in their care. Staff viewed these children with hostility and as given to “fantasy”.[5] This complete disbelief of children was incomprehensible and further increased their vulnerability. Children learned that they could not trust adults around them or speak out about abuse. Even when their allegations proved to be substantiated, they were shown no compassion and given no support.

12. Children at Shirley Oaks also spent time with ‘social aunts’ or ‘social uncles’ who were volunteers working with children but without proper vetting or checks on their suitability. They were permitted to undertake activities with the children or to take them on day trips. This allowed children to be exposed to some adults with a sexual interest in them, including Geoffrey Clarke, who was convicted in 1998 of the sexual abuse of three children not in the care of Lambeth Council. Clarke had been allowed to stay at Shirley Oaks and to have regular and unimpeded access to children there since the early 1970s. He was charged, as part of Operation Middleton, with 13 offences of indecent assault and possession of indecent images, but took his own life before he was tried. Lambeth Council is now aware of at least 40 complainants who have made allegations against Clarke.

13. South Vale assessment centre created an environment which put children at risk of sexual abuse. The regime there was punitive, stigmatising and encouraged favouritism. Senior staff and social workers failed to protect children, even when confronted with direct evidence that children were being sexually abused.

The role of senior staff and councillors

14. Staff and councillors failed in their professional and statutory duties when it came to responding to extremely serious allegations of staff misconduct, including criminal behaviour, towards looked after children. One particularly shocking example was Michael John Carroll, a member of staff at the Angell Road children’s home who had failed to disclose in the 1970s a previous conviction for child sexual abuse but was retained when this was eventually found out, following a disciplinary hearing. He was also supported by Lambeth Council staff in respect of his applications to foster children. Carroll was subsequently convicted in 1999 of 34 counts of child sexual abuse, including of two boys in the care of Lambeth Council between 1980 and 1983.[6]

15. There is clear evidence that sexual offenders and those suspected of sexual abuse were co-workers in Lambeth Council’s children’s homes at the same time. Some may have had a role in recruitment of other staff. In addition to the direct risk that Carroll posed to children, as the officer in charge of Angell Road he also had a role in the recruitment of others and in the investigation of allegations of sexual abuse made against others. In the case of at least one, LA-F4, Carroll contributed (as did the ineptitude of Lambeth Council) to the avoidance of an effective investigation. Through such poor practice and its failure to respond to concerns and allegations, Lambeth Council put vulnerable children in the path of adults known or suspected to be perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

16. Too often, senior staff in children’s social care failed to take disciplinary action against alleged perpetrators. Even when Lambeth Council did so, it frequently reached conclusions that failed to protect children or that prioritised the interests of those accused, as in the case of Carroll. In his case, misconduct proceedings, chaired by Mr David Pope, who later became director of social services, were inept, superficial and lacked a rigorous investigation of the grounds of the disciplinary hearing. Carroll should have been dismissed, but he was not – he was allowed to continue working with children with no assessment of whether or not he posed a risk. Having made the wrong decision at the disciplinary hearing, Lambeth Council staff did not simply fail to remove the risk that Carroll posed to children but allowed him to maintain additional responsibilities for highly questionable therapeutic work with vulnerable children in the Council’s care, in close and unsupervised settings within the Angell Road children’s home.

17. Numerous senior managers and elected councillors were aware of significant issues in relation to children in care from a series of reports produced by a staff member, Mr Robert Morton, from 1988 to 1990.[7] These reports indicated that many statutory requirements for looked after children were not being met, and that standards in children’s homes were unacceptable. The lack of interest and low priority accorded to taking action on these reports by councillors and senior staff represented a failure to discharge Lambeth Council’s statutory duties towards children in care. This was high handed and dismissive in respect of their responsibilities to vulnerable children and their futures.

18. Although similar concerns were raised in external reports (such as by the SSI) around the same time, senior managers and councillors continued in their failure to take action. Plans were drawn up, but with little real change to the appalling conditions in which children in care were living and no apparent accountability for lack of progress.

19. Councillors failed to hold senior staff accountable for the dismal quality of children’s social care, and did not themselves take responsibility for setting an appropriate strategy or ensuring improvements were made in order to protect children in their care. They crossed the boundary into operational and professional decision-making, when they should not have done so. While a few councillors (such as Ms Anna Tapsell and Ms Clare Whelan) did visit children’s homes and make some critical reports, councillors collectively did not discharge their statutory duty to provide robust and independent scrutiny of children’s homes.

20. There was no sense of councillors and staff working together to improve public services until some time after the appointment of Dame Heather Rabbatts as chief executive in 1995. Even then, children’s social care remained mired in poor and careless practice, leaving children at serious risk of harm and abuse. In 1999, for example, it was recognised there had been and continued to be major deficiencies in the carrying out of police checks on foster carers and other household members. An audit resulted in large numbers of foster carers being deregistered.[8]

21. While it is apparent that there are now much-improved systems in Lambeth, the Inquiry heard evidence of a more recent case – in 2016 – of a child in the care of Lambeth Council placed in Sheffield who made allegations of rape, but neither local authority convened a strategy meeting, as should have happened.[9]

The extent to which Lambeth Council sought to investigate, learn lessons and implement changes

22. There have been numerous investigations and reports – by Lambeth Council staff, by experts commissioned by the Council, by external inspectors and by the police – about children in the care of Lambeth Council. Many dealt with a single individual or incident, but similar themes arose in these reports. The list of weaknesses consistently described by the authors was long and well-rehearsed, so there could be little doubt about what needed to be done. This included a chronic lack of planning, poor record-keeping, overuse of unqualified staff, high numbers of unallocated cases and poor staff training, including on child sexual abuse. Ten years after the Morton reports, there remained (as demonstrated by the Barratt and SSI reports) extremely serious weaknesses in Lambeth Council’s ability to protect children in its care.

23. Lambeth Council also withheld information to avoid criticism of its handling of child sexual abuse allegations and other child protection issues. In the case of LA-A2, for example, whose death occurred in the late 1970s while he was in care, Lambeth Council staff told the coroner that there appeared to be no indications of him being unhappy”, despite LA-A2’s allegations of sexual abuse by his house father and his involvement in a subsequent criminal trial.[10] In concealing this information, staff showed a complete disregard for LA-A2 and prevented any real understanding of the circumstances of his death from emerging at the inquest.

The culture of Lambeth Council

24. There was limited evidence among councillors of serious commitment or application to their statutory duty towards children in their care. Ms Joan Twelves (who took office in 1986 and was leader of Lambeth Council between 1989 and 1991) stated that some of those councillors elected in 1986 had been “enthused by Lambeth’s battle against the Tory government but … had very little idea about running the local state to provide services for local residents”.[11]

25. In the 1980s, politicised behaviour and turmoil dominated Lambeth Council. The desire to take on the government and to avoid setting a council tax rate became their primary purpose rather than the provision of quality services, including children’s social care. During that time, children in care became pawns in a toxic power game within Lambeth Council and between the council and central government. This turmoil and failure to act to improve children’s social care continued into the 1990s and beyond.

26. Despite a self-styled ‘progressive’ political agenda, bullying, intimidation, racism and sexism thrived within Lambeth Council, all of which was set within a context of corruption and financial mismanagement which permeated much of Lambeth Council’s operations. Intimidation was experienced by those at the most senior levels of leadership within Lambeth Council, such as chief executives Herman Ouseley and Henry Gilby. Their seniority suggests that there were undermining, even criminal, forces at work which were undeterred by high status or the possibility of complaint to the police.

27. Many staff and councillors purported to hold principled beliefs about tackling racism and promoting equality, regarding Lambeth Council as a leading local authority in these areas. However, such ideals were of little practical consequence to most children in care in Lambeth and made minimal difference to their quality of life.

28. Black and ethnic minority children were overrepresented in Lambeth Council’s children’s homes and faced additional hardships, despite policies intended to encourage their sense of self and to ensure that their cultural needs were met. Some were subject to overt racism or suffered indirect discrimination. We also heard of a lack of recognition of physical needs, such as hair and skin care, and diet.

29. The Inquiry received evidence regarding staff lying about or hiding files, and denying knowledge of individuals under investigation when that was not true.[12] Some staff were keen to avoid criticism and placed their own interests above the children they were supposed to assist and support. Rather than a culture of openness and a willingness to improve when it came to the fundamental interests of children, there was instead defensiveness and resistance to change – children’s interests were secondary to those of staff and councillors.

30. Trade unions were able to influence the investigation of child protection failures, prioritising the interests of their members above the welfare of children, however evident the failings of their members were. In this, they were often supported by councillors, with whom it was suggested that a strong political axis existed.

Professional leadership

31. In September 1988, Mr Morton co-authored a report which made it clear that there was “little sense of direction or objectives, bad management and in some cases general apathy”.[13] Lambeth Council’s children’s homes were recognised as being in “a very poor state”, while other children were being placed in private and voluntary sector homes, sometimes for years, without any knowledge of the quality of care offered in those establishments.[14] This unacceptable state of affairs in 1988 had not occurred overnight. It mainly developed under the stewardship of Mr Robin Osmond and later Mr Pope, when Lambeth Council’s children’s social care remained in severe and ongoing crisis. There were numerous critical reports, investigations and inspections during Mr Pope’s period as director, including Mr John Barratt’s final report (1999 to 2000) which concluded that Lambeth Council repeatedly failed to fulfil both its statutory duties and its own policies relating to the care and protection of children.

32. For several decades, senior staff and councillors at Lambeth Council failed to effect change, despite overwhelming evidence that children in its care did not have the quality of life and protection to which they were entitled, and were being put at serious risk of sexual abuse.

33. When systemic failures were identified, time and again they were minimised and levels of risk ignored. Crisis, the commissioning of reports and going through the motions of responding to reports became the primary mechanism by which children’s social care operated. In spite of a constant stream of negative reports, Lambeth Council remained impervious to change.

Allegations of interference

34. There was rumour and speculation about political interference in Lambeth Council’s children’s social care, which sought to attribute what happened to children to the involvement of politicians and high-profile persons. It was further alleged that a protective network was formed around some individuals, principally Carroll, so as to insulate him from investigation. In addition, there have been persistent rumours that high-profile individuals or politicians were linked to the sexual abuse of children in Lambeth Council’s homes.

35. Serious issues have been raised as to the effectiveness of Operation Middleton, but the evidence received by this Inquiry does not suggest that it deliberately avoided the investigation of high-profile persons. It did, however, take a more cautious approach in its handling of information about high-profile individuals than had been the position under Operation Trawler.

36. The reality is that some Lambeth Council staff and councillors were complicit in putting children in care at risk of sexual abuse because they simply did not care enough. With some exceptions, they treated children in care as if they were worthless. As a consequence, individuals who posed a risk to children were able to infiltrate children’s homes and foster care, with devastating, lifelong consequences for their victims.

Inspection and oversight

37. In the 1980s, Lambeth Council’s own inspection unit was ineffective in its scrutiny of children’s residential care. It did not identify even the most obvious weaknesses, such as the physical fabric of the buildings, let alone challenge the attitudes of staff or the protection offered to children, or require prompt action to be taken on any problems identified.

38. Many councillors failed in their individual and collective duty to conduct routine visits to children’s homes. In some cases, where individual councillors did undertake visits, there is evidence of deliberate obstruction by officers. The failure to inspect, visit and provide reports meant that councillors did not see for themselves what daily life might look like for children living in Lambeth Council’s children’s homes. This also contributed to the closed nature of the environments experienced by children – as if they were captive victims. Sexual offenders operating within children’s homes were likely to have had a sense of being untouchable, while children were left feeling isolated and ignored.

39. SSI reports were an important source of scrutiny and monitoring information for both staff and councillors, and should have been a means of prompting change within Lambeth Council. However, as the Barratt final report concluded, SSI reports were dealt with at committee level “in an unrealistically bland way”.[15] Despite detailed action plans, many of the recommended improvements did not materialise. Nor was any accountability demanded by councillors of their senior officers for the lack of progress.

40. The culture of cover-up, inability to effect real change and lack of concern for the day-to-day lives of children in its care characterised Lambeth Council’s response to inspection and oversight. While it is clear that SSI inspection did not expressly identify the nature and extent of sexual abuse within Lambeth Council’s children’s homes, the SSI identified many chronic and serious safeguarding weaknesses and it was Lambeth Council’s responsibility to remedy them. Without verification of action, checked by the SSI or its equivalent independent agency, and a commitment to change from Lambeth Council, failure of the inspection and oversight process was inevitable.

41. The dramatic improvement to an ‘outstanding’ rating in 2012 from Ofsted (which had replaced the SSI), after years of failure, was followed three years later in 2015 by an assessment of ‘inadequate’. In light of the years of well-documented failures and critical reports from the SSI, as noted by Councillor Edward Davie (who, in 2020, was lead member for children’s social services), Ofsted’s 2012 rating is unlikely to have been an accurate reflection of practice within Lambeth Council at that time. In the 2015 inspection, Ofsted adopted a more detailed and in-depth approach, and concluded that some children continued to live in circumstances that were harmful and neglectful for unacceptable periods of time.

Investigation and prosecution of child sexual abuse

42. Opportunities to identify networks and links between offenders were missed by detectives. For example, when investigating the production of indecent images of children there was no liaison between the officers within Operation Pragada and Operation Bell to seek any material or information about Leslie Paul. During Operation Middleton there was evidence of links between William Hook and Donald Hosegood and these were not investigated.

43. In other areas, investigatory practice has developed since the 1970s and 1980s. Officers are now trained both to interview children and to work with social care professionals. However, as was recognised by Commander Alex Murray, the Metropolitan Police Service should embed “a culture of professional curiosity”, so that officers act appropriately and promptly in response to any concerns about a child.[16]

44. There are also practical challenges associated with the recruitment and retention of police officers in child protection work across London. There is no doubt that it is difficult work, but the judgements of trained and experienced police officers make a real impact on sexual abuse investigations, and ultimately on the outcomes for victims and survivors. It is crucial that this work is properly resourced.

45. Contact with and support for complainants through the criminal justice process is also vital to the successful detection and prosecution of sexual offenders. Many victims have found the experience of giving evidence in court to be traumatic, causing some to feel as if they were on trial rather than the defendant. The Code for Crown Prosecutors in place in the late 1980s looked at things very differently in terms of the evidence of children.[17] In 1986, the factors prosecutors were required to take into account when examining the evidence included whether there were “matters which might properly be put to a witness by the defence to attack his credibility”.[18] The 1988 version of the Code noted that “The credibility and credit of the child will often be of limited value, and in the case of very young children, may be nil”.[19]

46. Today’s practice requires prosecutors not to focus solely on the child, but rather on the evidence of the allegation being made.

47. The changes in practice over the years have been designed to provide greater support to victims of child sexual abuse. Nevertheless, the mistakes of the past, whether related to policy or practice, cannot now be fully corrected: the true scale of offending against children in the care of Lambeth Council will never be known.

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