The report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse on Lambeth Council’s care regime makes shocking reading.
For three decades from the 1960s onwards, more than 700 children were raped, molested or cruelly beaten in five different children’s homes or at the hands of foster parents. Many more were also humiliated and racially abused in what was clearly standard practice in some of the council’s care homes.
Police investigations and internal and external inquiries failed to uncover the extent to which paedophiles and sadists employed by the council were free to commit their atrocious crimes. Some sex offenders were allowed by council officials to continue in employment with access to children even after their convictions and cover-ups had become known. Instead of summary dismissal, they were kept on the council’s books. The few compelled to resign moved on to fresh pastures, their new employers kept in ignorance of their record.
There should be no question that the Metropolitan Police must seriously consider bringing criminal charges against former council officials, police officers and others in authority who failed to investigate properly — if even at all — the hundreds of allegations brought to their attention. The inquiry report reveals, for example, that only one senior staff member was disciplined by Lambeth Council after 705 complaints were made by children in three different care homes. At Shirley Oaks, 177 staff members were accused of abusing a total of 529 former residents.
Of course, not all allegations were likely to be true or accurate. Council employees were entitled to due process and to trade union representation in the event of disciplinary charges being laid against them. But in many cases there was little or no investigation in the first place. The allegations and testimonies given by care and foster home children were frequently treated with disbelief and even contempt by senior council staff and police officers. Internal and external inquiries were far too ready to accept the accounts and assurances by the perpetrators of vile crimes.
Yet the pattern of abuse was there for all to see. The same people in the same places were accused of the same depraved behaviour by hundreds of different victims at different times. Some small comfort can be taken from the knowledge that child protection policies and procedures have changed substantially since the 1990s, helped by inquiries into other cases of institutional abuse in England, Scotland and Wales.
Recruitment, vetting and investigatory procedures have been transformed. Early intervention, inter-agency collaboration and various modes of care and residency have all drastically reduced the dependence on residential care homes. However, these alternatives are expensive if they are to be effective. Local government has the statutory responsibility for most child protection services and relies on central government funding to provide them.
Such funding fell by around 23% between 2010 and 2019 as a result of the austerity regime launched by the Conservatives and Lib Dems. As that same austerity regime boosted the number of child social care referrals and protection plans, many local councils in the poorest areas were forced to raid other budgets in a desperate effort to protect endangered children.
Now Boris Johnson’s government has established the MacAlister Review of children’s social care. But its hidden remit stipulates that any cost-bearing recommendations will only be funded by savings elsewhere. Perish the thought that we should prioritise the protection of our most vulnerable children over the purchase of a new set of aircraft carriers, jet fighters and nuclear missiles.