Alison Taylor: Woman who blew the whistle on abuse breaks her silence

Exclusive interview: She was sacked and shunned, and paid a heavy personal price, but the former senior social worker tells Sarah Morrison she has no regrets

Alison Taylor, the former senior social worker who blew the whistle on abuse in children's homes in North Wales knows what it feels like to be vilified. When she handed a dossier of allegations to officials, detailing how those in charge were mistreating vulnerable children, she thought she might lose her job. She had no idea her actions would lead to the biggest inquiry into child sex abuse in Britain.

She was not only right, but also vindicated. The Waterhouse inquiry, set up as a result of Ms Taylor's complaints, albeit more than a decade later, found that hundreds of children's lives in care homes in North Wales between 1974 and 1990 had had their lives "grossly poisoned" by authority figures. The 1,391-page report confirmed evidence of widespread physical and sexual abuse and found a paedophile ring was in existence, with men targeting boys in their mid-teens, particularly those in care. It condemned the "cult of silence" that had kept it hidden for so long.

Had it not been for Ms Taylor, that silence might never have been broken. "What happened was horrendous. More horrendous than I knew," Ms Taylor, 68, tells me, as we sit in her new house in Bangor, North Wales. "A number of other social workers managed to live with it. One said to me that if I said something I'd be 'committing professional suicide'. But if I come across something morally wrong, I can't leave it. I thought sooner or later someone had to stand up and be counted."

But this came with a price. Months after Ms Taylor handed a county councillor a folder of notes she had taken, of abuse she had witnessed or been told about in care homes across North Wales, she was fired. The official reason: a "breakdown of professional communications", but she says "everyone knew why I had been dismissed". She was dubbed "subversive" by the local police, whose inquiry into the allegations was later deemed "sluggish and shallow". She was shunned by her co-workers, the council, and some in her community.

It was this paper that first took her claims seriously, publishing an exposé into the abuse allegations in 1991. But for a long time, she could not find anyone to listen to the "well-known but hidden facts". Now she can. Ms Taylor was 32, and a mother of two, when she became deputy head of Gwynedd County Council's flagship children's assessment centre. She describes it then as "chaotic, understaffed, and over-full of kids". The 12-bed unit often housed up to 15 "very, very needy children."

She remembers vividly the first time she saw a colleague "slap" three teenage girls. She reported physical abuse to the council; the perpetrator went on sick leave and didn't return. She said after that, she regarded the local government as a "closed shop". Another time, she saw a senior co-worker "knock" a young boy around. "This boy had been promised home-leave, but at the last minute [my colleague] decided he wasn't having it. So the kid absconded. We got him back, and my colleague was knocking him about. Then he told him to kneel down and lick his shoes."

Years later, Ms Taylor spent almost three months at Bryn Estyn, one of the worst homes, where one of the principal offenders, Peter Howarth, worked. He was convicted in July 1994 of eight sexual offences and sentenced to 10 years in prison. "I knew things were going on, I could tell by the atmosphere and the children's wariness," Ms Taylor says. "When I asked about Howarth's 'flat list' [a list of boys who were invited to visit his flat], everyone clammed up. Staff started to freeze me out. I thought the best thing to do was kind of shut up, you know, or see if the opportunity arose to express them in the right quarter. It didn't arise."

It was only when she headed up her own residential unit that some of the children, referred to her from other homes, began to confide in her. "The brutality inflicted on girls and boys was absolute," she says. "When girls were on their period, they weren't allowed their own sanitary towels, they had to ask staff every time they wanted a fresh one; food was rationed, they weren't allowed their own toothpaste or soap. It was these little things that amounted to total humiliation." Children also came with serious concerns that others were being sexually abused.

The trigger, for Ms Taylor, was when a young boy in her care died, after a colleague sent him to a B&B to fend for himself. "I knew I had to do something; the whole thing was rotten," she says. What followed has been documented; she reached out to a county councillor, lost her job, and suffered constant smears to her reputation. But when Waterhouse was published, it was with this note: "Without Alison Taylor's complaints … there would not have been any inquiry into the alleged abuse of children in care in Gwynedd." But she certainly doesn't want to be seen as a hero.

"I don't want it to define me," she says. "Yes, it's a waste that my career ended so early. But it was a case of realising, yes, there's something here, and it needs to be sorted out." She adds: "It's very hard to explain, if you haven't worked in an enclosed space, but just like in a prison, it's not only the inmates who are imprisoned, it's the staff as well. It takes you a while to see how insidious it can be, how invasive, how it all creeps up without you knowing." Certain now why the offenders treated those they were meant to be caring for with such contempt, she says: "It's because they can."

She adds: "The death camps in Auschwitz were not run by monsters, but by perfectly normal German people, who before the war had done ordinary things. They are taken into that environment and poisoned by it." She tells me this kind of behaviour "can never be eradicated" because it is "part of human nature to bully the weaker ones".

The Government has just launched two fresh inquiries into the scandal, and Ms Taylor thinks "a lot of questions remain unanswered. For example, why certain people weren't prosecuted". But the care-worker-turned-crime-writer, who has had five novels published, has always warned journalists about misidentification. She described the recent Newsnight, which wrongly implicated Lord McAlpine in sex abuse allegations, as "shoddy journalism".

Shaking her head, she tells me she has to get back to editing her sixth book. It is about a "girl who gets beaten to within an inch of her life and then recovers." When I ask if her novels are a thinly veiled dig at the inept police service in Britain, she laughs before answering, no. They are merely "an exploration of people's faults; their good and bad parts".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas