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Children in care 'were whipped and tortured': Woman sues council over 'treatment that drove her to drugs and prostitution'

THE LONDON Borough of Camden allegedly administered a brutal regime of physical and sexual abuse, involving the use of torture, in its children's homes, according to a former prostitute who is seeking compensation for her treatment. Mychaela Cook, 28, claims that staff in one of the homes she lived in during the 1970s and 1980s often held the hands of naughty children over a gas fire, and whipped the young residents with a belt. There was sex abuse, and many of the children were on drugs and involved, as she was, in regular prostitution.

She is seeking damages for the way she was treated while in care and for loss of earnings from the age of 17 until retirement at 65 on the grounds that she is unemployable as the result of her experiences.

The Legal Aid Board, which is funding the action, has accepted that there is a case to be made, even though it falls outside the normal time limit. It is understood that psychiatrists believe her history of nervous illness is attributable, at least partly, to her alleged experiences as a child in Camden. Camden council said last week: 'The truth or otherwise of these allegations will be tested in the court. The case is now in the hands of our solicitors.'

There are understood to be several other people considering legal actions against Camden council in the wake of the case by Ms Cook. Some did not leave care until as late as 1990. Ms Cook left in 1985.

Ms Cook, who now lives on disability benefit because of nervous illness, was three years old when she was put into care. Her mother had left the family home and her father, a gas fitter's mate, was left to bring up four children, all under the age of four. He could not cope and called in the social services. 'I remember that day,' Ms Cook said. 'The social worker was putting us in a taxi. My dad was running up with toys saying 'I'm sorry'. Then we were taken to a big building.' Her father died two years ago, but she kept in touch with him while she was in care.

Until 1977, she lived in a home in St John's Wood, which has since been closed. Her writ alleges that the regime was 'brutal and aggressive'. Physical punishment included smacking, often said to be severe, and kicking. Some staff are alleged to have burnt children's hands over a gas fire, forced them to take cold baths, to stand on their heads before going to bed, and made them sleep with their heads at the bottom of their bed under the sheets. One man is claimed to have regularly whipped children with a belt, and to have abused Ms Cook and masturbated in her presence.

She also says she was sent to a special school in Camden for sub- normal children, despite the fact that she was not sub-normal.

She was later sent, with her two brothers, to live with foster parents in the borough. She became close to her foster mother, but her foster father, 70, abused her. 'He was nice for the first few months, but he was an old bloke. He kept coming to my room when I was getting undressed or when I was in the bath making some excuse. I was about 13.'

Eventually she walked out and was taken to another home where she claims the regime was as brutal as the first.

She claims she was subjected to a form of punishment similar to the 'pin-down' method which came to public attention following a report into children's homes in Staffordshire three years ago. Like the Staffordshire children, she says she was kept in solitary confinement and forced to wear the same clothes for days on end.

After this period, Ms Cook became a drug addict and can remember little. She lived in several homes, was placed with foster parents again, but habitually ran away. She was also working as a prostitute while in care. 'There were girls as young as 14 working on the streets. It was because we didn't get other attention. I was told I was uncontrollable but I just wanted someone to love me.'

She ended up staying in a hostel for young people in Camden, which was intended to prepare her for adult life. 'One girl in the house who was 17 was pregnant - and one girl was having affairs with members of staff,' she said.

She was not ready, when released, to live in a council bedsit and went to stay with her mother-in-law. She was 19 and married. 'I got married to get out of care,' she says. She was married for seven years and had two children but is now divorced. The council is currently threatening to take her children into care, according to the writ.

She has been told that she now suffers a permanent psychotic disorder, with symptoms including fear of open spaces and depression. She has weaned herself off drugs, and no longer works as a prostitute, but she is addicted to alcohol: 'I drink to forget what has happened.'