Beck could have been stopped 'as early as 1977': Rosie Waterhouse looks at two reports critical of the handling of child abuse in Leicestershire homes

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The Independent Online
THE full horror of Frank Beck's sadistic and perverted regime began to come to light only in 1989 when a former resident in his 'care' made a statement to a social worker, and then to the police, cataloguing physical abuse and humiliation suffered at the Ratcliffe Road children's home.

'The hell started on the day I walked into the place . . . When I tried to explain that I missed my mother they trapped me between their legs and dug their fingers in my ribs and made me scream and cry out in pain. Then they put me in a wooden playpen. They just pounced on who they fancied. We were forced to use bottles. We were humiliated and degraded. We were angry and hurt.'

The police investigation which followed resulted in Beck's conviction for a series of sex attacks and five life sentences for four offences of buggery and one of rape. Mr Justice Jowitt described him as 'a man of very great evil who abused his position of trust to pursue evil and lustful desires'.

But for 13 years the cries for help from abused children at the three homes run by Beck between 1973 and 1986 went unheeded, despite complaints to police and Leicestershire County Council. The report by Chief Superintendent David Foster, of West Mercia Police, into Leicestershire Police's involvement makes clear Beck's activities could have been exposed by 1977. Chief Supt Foster said that after considering 15 of the 29 complaints: 'It is the view of this inquiry that . . . there is more than a possibility Beck's criminal activities would have been exposed at an earlier date. This is particularly true of the investigations in 1977, 1985 and 1986. The substance of these complaints was greater than that of the complaint in 1989 which led to Beck's ultimate conviction.'

But the report said that there was no 'equitable basis' for bringing disciplinary charges against any officer. It also emphasised that there was no evidence of any criminal misconduct by the officers: '. . . many of the police officers we have identified in these 29 cases are now retired but there are other officers in these cases no less open to criticism whom we have not been able to identify'.

The report of the government inquiry by Andrew Kirkwood QC criticised a succession of council officers, including three serving officers - Michael Wells, deputy director of social services; John Cobb, a team manager in the social services department; and Ron Fenney, deputy county secretary. Criticisms of them and other named staff will be investigated by a team of officers who started work yesterday. If complaints are upheld, disciplinary proceedings could result in dismissal.

Brian Rice, who was director of Leicestershire social services from 1980 to 1986, is accused by Mr Kirkwood of gross negligence for 'inexcusably' writing a reference for Beck after he had resigned over sexual harassment complaints from two members of staff, which enabled Beck to continue working with vulnerable and disturbed children.

Mr Kirkwood makes no specific recommendations. But the police report calls, among other things, for the Home Office to review the legal position over the disclosure of information by police when, at the end of a criminal investigation, it is decided there is insufficient evidence to justify charges but the person's conduct gives rise to serious concerns.

The police merely advise social services of the decision. They are reluctant to make other disclosures which could enable social services to consider the problem because it could lead to civil litigation or breaches of police discipline regulations. So a suspected child abuser could remain in post, the report said. 'Understanding the police reticence, this inquiry believes the Home Office should urgently review the legal and disciplinary position and provide adequate protection and safeguards for the police.'

The report found that officers had openly disbelieved the youngsters' complaints, some showing outright hostility. They looked on them as young criminals and some considered that a beating was 'no more than summary justice'.

They interviewed the children either at the home where they had been abused, often in front of the abuser, or in a police station; failed to record or investigate complaints; and did not question vital witnesses. One officer allowed the abusers to control and manipulate his inquiries so that he failed to obtain crucial evidence.

In almost every case, police returned the child to the home where the abuse had taken place. In every case, the social worker alleged to have carried out the abuse remained in post throughout the investigation. 'The inquiry has established that these circumstances allowed the child complainant and other child witnesses to be intimidated and manipulated,' the report said - in some cases leading to further abuse.

Among the recommendations in the report were:

Officers should be properly trained to interview abused children and all allegations should be recorded as a crime, irrespective of the youngsters' character or background;

No child should be taken back to the home or made to repeat his or her comments to a social worker at the home;

Consideration should be given to suspending or transferring temporarily an employee alleged to have carried out the abuse and to removing the child from the home until the investigation is complete;

Interviews with children should be held in an informal atmosphere, with no more than two adults present. Complainants should be told in person the outcome of the inquiry.

(Photograph omitted)