Help that came 'too little, too late'

Victims of the abusers: A devastating report into child abuse in North Wales, kept secret by Clwyd County Council but disclosed here, reveals chaos in the council's social services department and failure to act on a catalogue of complaints of physical anding decades. Roger Dobson reports
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The Independent Online
The inquiry report into child abuse in North Wales, which has been kept secret by Clwyd County Council, provides a devastating critique of poor social services management and missed opportunities in dealing with widespread abuse in children's homes.

"Too little too late" was the council's response to reports of abuse, according to a 300-page independent report which talks of "chaotic" organisation in a Clwyd social services department which had failed to learn from its mistakes.

There had been at least 10 internal investigations by the council, several of which covered residential homes, but the report says: "Many of the professions interviewed by the independent panel expressed the view that Clwyd social services was very good at reviewing itself but has failed consistently to learn from its mistakes and been unable to implement a full range of appropriate safeguards.

"We are of the opinion that Clwyd social services does not appear to have been able to learn from its own internal inquiries. Reviews ... are commissioned with no real attempt to implement the findings.

"A number of the internal investigations point to a chaotic state of overall management by Clwyd social services of its residential childcare provision.

"It is inescapable that the heart of the problems in Clwyd has been the lack of rigour in the matter of personnel policy and procedure. Our investigations have led us to the conclusion that the abuse of children and young people in Clwyd residential units has been extensive and [took] place over a substantial number of years.

"What was described by the North Wales police as the largest investigation of child abuse resulted in 3,755 witness statements being taken. This resulted in four men being convicted. Not less than 24 people were recognised victims of these crimes; offences include buggery, indecent assault, cruelty, actual bodily harm.

"It is clear that the lives of young people who have been through the care system in Clwyd have been severely disrupted. At least 12 young people are dead.

"It is unclear how many other professionals, including police officers, were named in these statements as perpetrators. We know of at least three current employees of Clwyd social services who were interviewed as part of the investigation. To our knowledge none of them was disciplined.

"It would be tempting for those who wish to avoid any further critical examination of the issues to propose that the failings were confined to Clwyd and to seek to draw a line under them.

"The panel has no doubt that the roles of other agencies such as health, education, probation, the North Wales Police and the Welsh Office, require similar careful and detailed scrutiny if more effective safeguards are to be put in place.

"Major gaps in our knowledge, along with the decisions of individuals and agencies not to meet with us, or in some instances to provide us with only limited information, has meant we have been left with misgivings which can only be answered or dispelled through further detailed examination of these matters.

"We raise these issues to indicate the degree of concern and disquiet felt in a number of quarters, from ex-residents themselves, to government ministers. The concerns regarding the care of children in the past and to some extent the present have been sufficient to generate numerous requests for a public inquiry.

"Our findings show that time and time again the response to indications that children may have been abused has been too little and too late ... Our criticisms in this regard apply not only to Clwyd but also to the Welsh Office, the North Wales Police and constituent agencies, in so far as we were able to examine their contribution to our investigation.

"A second overarching finding is that there has been a conflict of interest ... the interests of young people have almost invariably been sacrificed with the false conviction that to take no action was the only response.

"Our findings also question the outcomes and use made of previous investigations. There have been to our knowledge at least 10 internal inquiries within Clwyd.

"We welcome the commitment of the county council to what we believe to be publication in its entirety. We believe that all those with a responsibility for child protection matters in Clwyd have an inescapable duty to read our report in full.

"We consider that a public judicial inquiry under the arrangements set out under section 250 of the Local Government Act should be initiated ... We highlight the issues below which we consider to be of considerable public interest and which require urgent scrutiny, guidance and review.

"First and foremost, children have a right to safe group living. We note that many local authority residential units are being closed. However, there are other group-living arrangements where vulnerable children may be placed. These include education boarding placements which are required to be inspected only every four years; child psychiatric units where we are unclear about what inspections are undertaken; and youth custody and remand centres, as well as the increasing private-sector provision including small homes which currently fall outside of the usual inspection services.

"All of these group-living environments are potential target areas for sex offenders. Hence a tightening of recruitment, monitoring and supervision in one type of establishment must be followed by a similar tightening in other types of establishment. There is an evident increase in investigations of settings for vulnerable service users including children ... Underpinning our concern is the belief that children and families have a right to safe care and local authorities have a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that this safety is provided.

"Secondly, insurance issues are complex. It is clear that the interests of the insurers of Clwyd have in recent years played an important part in the investigations of child abuse. We know, however, that this is not a situation unique to Clwyd.

"Thirdly, the management of large police investigations into child-protection matters, including retrospective allegations, needs urgent consideration.

"Fourthly, the discrepancies across public departments or between the law and guidance on written warnings in disciplinary matters, are all contributing factors to abuse continuing.

"It is clear that sex offenders can and do network so that circumscribed investigations and strict adherence to, for example, [police] force boundaries, as evidenced by the use of the police database, Holmes, are clearly sometimes not in the best interests of children and their right to safe caring.

"These issues are all of fundamental importance. We regard it is imperative that they are addressed in the full view of public scrutiny."