Council chief quits in abuse row

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The Independent Online
GLENDA COOPER

A council social services director is retiring after an inquiry accused him of misleading government officials over abuse in local children's homes.

John Bennett, director of social services in Northumberland for nine years, has applied to retire on "grounds of permanent ill-health", the council leader, Ian Swithenbank, said last night.

The report, commissioned by Northumberland County Council and carried out by William Kilgallon, chief executive of a Leeds housing trust, found that the reasons Mr Bennett gave for suppressing allegations of practices "akin to pindown" to both the Department of Health and his own social services committee were "not convincing".

In 1991, the department requested all authorities to review residential child care practices in the wake of the Staffordshire "pindown" inquiry. The report defines pindown as containing "the worst element of institutional control" such as special clothing, strict routine, segregation and humiliation.

Eight of the nine homes in Mr Bennett's area were found to be satisfactory. But at Netherton Park, which houses boys and girls with difficult behaviour, the review team found "a very worrying general attitude towards children and [the log books] contained material indicating practices that might be said to be "akin to pindown". The team recommended an independent review should be set up "as a matter of urgency".

However, Mr Bennett withdrew all copies of the report and told the social services committee that there "was no evidence of practices similar to those which took place in Staffordshire" and also reported back to the Department of Health that areas of concern "did not indicate a regime akin to pindown".

Mr Bennett told the inquiry that he felt that the review team had reached the wrong conclusions. Mr Kilgallon said: "In my view the reports to the social services committee and to the Department of Health do not reflect the conclusions of the review team and the reasons given for the withdrawal of their report are not convincing."

Mr Bennett's decision to stand down came as a surprise development from yesterday's publication of the inquiry report which was initially set up to look into the separate issue of complaints about the Meadowdale Children's Home at Bedlington during the 1970s and 1980s.

The report into sexual and physical abuse at Meadowdale will now be referred back to the Crown Prosecution Service after the local authority acknowledged that there was "sufficient substance to the allegations to give serious cause for concern". In a previous investigation the CPS decided not to prosecute anyone. None of the staff against whom the allegations were made is now employed by the council.

The Kilgallon report speaks of three staff members, who used "physical chastisement, particularly on male residents", including the practice known as "knuckling" - a blow to the head with a fist.

The report also looked at the issue of "inappropriate restraint" at Meadowdale arising from children who, due to their disabilities, had difficulty using ordinary furniture or beds.

"Robert" [not his real name], now aged 16, suffering from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, was filmed aged 10 tied down in his bed with a baby harness and thick leather straps.

The video was given to his 35-year-old mother by her son's former foster parents who obtained it accidentally. She said: "I felt disgusted when I saw it. Someone somewhere will have to answer to me over this. What I hope is that the report will show that the people who did this are going to be punished."

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