Social workers tried to cover up abuse at homes

Tim Kelsey reveals a council care regime in which girls and boys lived together and teenagers were allowed to stay with a paedophile Staff told of `high sexual activity' and said the home was `out of control' `You put abused children together, and the
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One of Britain's wealthiest county councils is running a child- care regime in which children have been sexually and physically abused, allowed to sleep together - even as young as 13 - and exploited by paedophiles.

An investigation by the Independent has uncovered a virtual breakdown in order in children's homes managed by Buckinghamshire county council. It has also discovered that senior social workers have tried to cover up incidents of abuse in order to avoid heaping embarrassment on the authority.

The investigation has shown:

n Two boys, alleged to have raped a girl in one home, were quickly removed from the home by managers and taken on a "touring holiday" to stop the scandal from becoming public;

n Boys and girls as young as 13, are living together in unsupervised houses;

n Two boys regularly absconded from their children's home to stay with a known paedophile with the knowledge of the local authority. One of the boys was offered £120 to sleep with an "uncle" from Luton;

n Social workers were told that any children sent to a fourth home were to be considered "at risk" because the home was so violent;

n Staff reported that the atmosphere in one home was "virtually out of control" with a high incidence of "ABH (actual bodily harm)" and a "very high" level of sexual activity.

The Independent has been assisted in its inquiries by a number of very senior sources within the local authority appalled by what one described as a "catalogue of neglect". Another has accused the authority, the only Tory-led county council in Britain, of failing in its responsibility to children in care.

The revelations come only months after this newspaper disclosed that Buckinghamshire had allowed a residential home for the mentally handicapped to remain open despite allegations that the owners of the home had sexually and physically assaulted residents. Gordon and Angela Rowe, the former owners, have disappeared. Thames Valley Police is still investigating allegations made against them.

At the time of those reports, Buckinghamshire insisted it had a good record on the quality of care provided in homes for which it was responsible. It denied that it was failing to provide proper inspections of facilities.

It has since emerged that during the course of that investigation, Buckinghamshire social services became aware of another scandal in a home known as Heathercroft - the name has since been changed to the Heathercroft Resource Centre.

This home is for children aged between 13 and 18 and is a campus-style institution with three "houses". In early October, care workers discovered that two boys had been performing a "sexual initiation rite" on girls. This was allegedly a regular practice in the home, which is notorious among neighbours because of the violence and vandalism by its residents.

Officials were concerned that local journalists might discover what happened so the manager of the home, Iain Campbell, approved sending the two on a "touring holiday" - according to internal documents - in North Wales. There were no alternative residential placements for the children locally. The incident was not reported to the police but it was notified to Mike Tidball, director of social services for the northern part of the county. The Independent has been unable to establish what action was then taken. The boys are understood to have returned to care.

Senior county officials were horrified to learn that boys and girls were allowed to sleep in the same "houses" at Heathercroft, and, because these were unsupervised, often with each other. The home remains open, and the sexes unsegregated.

Mr Campbell admitted in one report that: "There are problems filling staffing vacancies with experienced staff." He said that it was necessary to find agency cover in the short-term.

One senior county official commented: "You put abused children together, and they abuse each other. The staff is not skilled enough to care. We have a duty of care to these children and we have failed."

One internal report expressed surprise at the level of violence and sexual activity at the home, noting that there was a lot of hostility from a local housing estate after children were abusive, damaged property and were responsible for physical attacks. Social workers reported a "high level of sexual activity" and said the "home was out of control".

Heathercroft is not the only children's home in crisis. In another case, two boys were able to repeatedly abscond from their children's home to stay - sometimes for months - with a well-known Milton Keynes paedophile. In February 1994, senior managers were formally advised of the situation and the police arrested the boys on several occasions and returned them to the council home. But the social services had done nothing to make sure they stayed, neither had it, according to internal documents, taken action to retrieve them. It was legally responsible for the safety of both children.

During a police interview, one of the boys revealed that he had been asked by one of the men in the flat in which they were hiding if he would take £120 to sleep with an "uncle" from Luton.

Later, one of the men with whom the children were staying was arrested in connection with a police investigation into child sex abuse. Another man was among four adults later convicted. The social services department put the children on the at-risk register.

In another home, social workers have been told that any children put on placement there should be considered "at risk" because of violence in the institution. "This is terrifying," said one source. "To think that a child becomes at risk when it goes into care. All these kids are going to sue this authority for their treatment. We have a duty towards them."

At a home in Aylesbury, The Old Barn, there were frequent incidents of violence, and in a fifth home, Orchard House in High Wycombe, there is evidence of widespread drug-taking and drinking among the children.