`Ritual abuse' families tell of years of hell

Parents bitterly attack Ayrshire social workers whose reports robbed them of their children.

A 15-year-old girl who was one of the eight Ayrshire youngsters taken into care after their parents were wrongly accused of ritual sex abuse, was reunited with her mother and father last night.

The parents, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said they were delighted that their "years of hell and injustice" had come to an end. They described their "immense relief" at yesterday's ruling in the Court of Session in Edinburgh that all the Ayrshire children should return home.

They bitterly criticised the social workers whose investigations in 1990 led to the initial care orders. The Strathclyde social work department had failed to learn the lessons of the Cleveland child sex abuse scandal in 1987, they said. "Like other parents, I handed my girl to these people for tests," the girl's father said. "They said I would get her back in two or three days - and it was five years. Five years in which she was crying in the dark."

The Ayrshire case is the latest sex abuse scandal in which children have been returned to their families after abuse allegations have turned out to be unfounded. Following highly-publicised cases in Cleveland, Orkney and Rochdale, new guidelines have been issued to social workers investigating abuse claims. Government researchers have disputed the very existence of Satanic abuse.

The Ayrshire case began when the mother of one of the eight children asked social workers to investigate claims that her husband had abused her three children. The allegations led to a major police investigation into a sex abuse ring involving 70 adults and children.

After initial examinations, four boys and four girls, then aged from 10 months to 11 years, from three closely related families, were removed by social workers using place-of-safety orders. At an initial hearing in Ayr in August 1990, Sheriff Neil Gow QC found that the children had been sexually abused or were members of a household where a child had been abused.

Sheriff Gow said there was evidence of "sinister elements of sadism, ritualism and torture". Warning that the public "must be alerted to extreme depravities and appalling practices", he referred the case to a Scottish Children's Panel. It made the eight youngsters the subject of supervision orders and they were taken into care.

The families protested their innocence, pointing out that despite exhaustive police inquiries no one had been charged with any offence. With the help of lawyers, they began to compile new evidence which challenged Sheriff Gow's findings. Evidence from expert medical witnesses, who had experience of the Cleveland and Orkney cases, indicated that social workers who examined the children were inadequately trained, had asked leading questions and that medical examinations were flawed.

In a rare legal move in July 1993, the parents persuaded three Court of Session judges in Edinburgh to order a re-hearing of the evidence. Sheriff Colin Miller, who had no previous experience of the case, conducted the second hearing in private. In a 450-page ruling presented to Lord Hope, Scotland's most senior judge, last week, he said that the evidence of alleged abuse had been so ineptly collected and so contaminated that it was not possible to conclude whether it was credible. On balance, the case had not been proven.

Sheriff Miller said that in 1990 there was a fashion to seek out sexual abuse, in particular ritual or satanic abuse. "I am aware that nearly five years later the climate has reversed," he said. "It has been recognised that the approach taken then towards the investigation of child abuse cases was flawed."

Strathclyde Regional Council said last night that it had adopted new government guidelines governing sex abuse investigations. Mary Hartnoll, director of social work, admitted that Sheriff Miller's criticism of the department's handling of the Ayrshire case was "devastating".

Ms Hartnoll stressed that social workers had acted "in the children's best interests on the basis of their knowledge at the time". She added: "Back in 1990 we were at a much earlier stage in understanding the problems of sexual abuse, and in giving guidelines to social workers about how to collect evidence." A full investigation into the actions of social workers would be carried out.

In the wake of the dawn raids by social workers in which a number of children were taken from homes in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, and the Orkney Islands, an inquiry was ordered by the Government. There were no prosecutions following the seizure of the children and suspicions grew about the actions of social workers. The inquiry found: "Too frequent interviewing, leading questions, contamination, pressure and inducements may have resulted from the anxiety of interviewers to have found out what happened."

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