£1m payout for relatives of care home abuse victims

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The Independent Online

The frail and elderly relatives of more than 50 severely disabled adults, subjected to a cruel and abusive regime in two care homes for more than a decade, showed no sense of triumph yesterday when they accepted more than £1m in compensation.

Almost a decade after The Independent exposed the catalogue of sexual abuse and other acts of violence being perpetrated in two homes for people with learning difficulties, the victims' families finally reached the end of a tortuous legal battle.

In a last-minute settlement, Buckinghamshire County Council - the local authority responsible for registering and inspecting the two homes - capitulated and agreed to make reparation. While the authority continued to maintain it was not liable, it agreed to pay the majority of the damages sought before the trial was due to begin yesterday.

The unique legal battle centred on Janet Ward, a test case for the 54 former residents seeking compensation. The young woman, an epileptic with learning difficulties, was one of five residents who the families say were raped by the Longcare homes' owner, Gordon Rowe. Ms Ward died at the age of 28, before the conclusion of the protracted fight for justice.

Ms Ward's sister, Pauline Hennessey, said outside court: "It has been nine years since we learnt of the abuse when The Independent published the leaked internal [council] report. I don't feel triumph. The apology we were given today we should have received nine years ago. The staff who committed the appalling crimes at Longcare were sick, evil people. But I hold Buckinghamshire Social Services ultimately responsible. My sister, Janet, went to hell and back while she was there. I just hope that now applications to register care homes are scrutinised much more carefully."

Rowe killed himself in 1996 before he could be charged with a string of abuse offences including rape. Six years ago his wife, Angela Rowe, 39, and two staff members, was found guilty of ill-treatment. She was jailed for two and a half years, while Lorraine Field, 42, of Stoke Poges, was sentenced to 15 months and Desmond Tully, 33, of Exeter, was fined.

At their trial, the court was told that residents, some with a mental age of a three-year-old, existed in a regime of deprivation, humiliation and torment. One partially blind woman with Down's syndrome was regularly dragged outside and forced to eat her meals in the cold. An autistic man was made to work in the garden and frequently punched and kicked when he refused.

An inquiry in the following year was damning in its report, criticising a shortage of inspection staff at the council and inadequate checks.

Yesterday many of the elderly parents, who had placed their children in what they believed to be a caring environment only to discover they had been subject to constant abuse, listened quietly at the High Court as Mrs Justice Hallett agreed the settlement.

She said: "I share the council's hope that the settlement will go in some small way to compensating those affected by this catalogue of abuse and enable them to put it behind them, if ever they can."

Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC, representing the families, explained how there had already been a black mark against Gordon Rowe when he sought to register the first home, Stoke Place Mansion House, in 1983. But the council accepted his claim that allegations of sexual abuse at a former home where he had worked were simply malicious.

As early as 1984 other complaints followed, yet Rowe was allowed to register a second home, Stoke Green House, in 1987. The two adjoining properties had 66 residents with varying learning disabilities.

From 1991 the complaints became starker. Two years later Thames Valley Police investigated but decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute. In November 1993 the council began its investigation, and Rowe and his wife withdrew from the management. After The Independent published the leaked inspection report, revealing residents were being subjected to a "catalogue of abuse, deprivation, humiliation and torment", the police investigation was reopened.

Ms Gumbel said that while the money from a settlement was unimportant to the families, "they need to see this as recognition that this should never have happened.".

Simeon Maskrey QC, for the county council, said the authority had not been responsible for the abuse meted out by Rowe and his staff, but it acknowledged with hindsight its "shortcomings" had increased the risk of his ill-treatment going on unchecked and was "desperately sorry" that it had taken place.

While the exact figure of compensation has yet to be decided, the council has agreed to pay 70 per cent of the figure sought by 50 of the victims and 100 per cent to the four residents placed in the homes by Buckinghamshire social services and not other authorities.

Simon Richardson, a solicitor for the families, said yesterday's victory should have a wide-ranging impact on the system. Mr Richardson explained: "When insurance companies come to reinsure local authorities they will now be mindful of the importance of ensuring that proper checks are carried out."