The Orkney Inquiry: Child abuse report urges 194 reforms: Lord Clyde's paper will be a 'major influence' in the transformation

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The Independent Online
LORD CLYDE'S damning report on child protection practices in the Orkneys includes 194 recommendations for reform, ranging from sexual abuse investigation methods to the training of social workers.

The Government promised yesterday that the report would be a major influence on a White Paper that would overhaul legislation on the emergency protection of children. A crucial element is Lord Clyde's suggestion that courts become more actively involved in the quest for place-of-safety orders for suspected abuse victims.

In a move which appears to weaken the role of Scotland's unique children's panel system, he recommends that sheriffs, not justices of the peace, hear requests for children to be removed from their families and that social workers provide more documented material to sheriffs when seeking orders.

The report would also give parents earlier redress to the courts, but stops short of recommending a parents' advocate to represent families in their dealings with social work departments.

There are 29 recommendations on interviewing children who may have been abused. A Scottish Office spokesman said it was widely accepted that this was a difficult area. 'What we don't know about interviewing children would fill books.'

Lord Clyde advises that, wherever possible, interviewers who have dealt with children making allegations about other children should not be involved in interviewing those other children. This recommendation springs directly from criticism of the interview techniques employed by Liz McLean, a social worker with the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Allegations said to come from three young children of the W family from South Ronaldsay (a family with a record of proven abuse whose father was convicted and imprisoned) were the origins of the suspicions surrounding other families on the island. Lord Clyde criticised the 'inadequacy of the records and reports'. He called these early interviews 'crucial'.

Lord Clyde also warns that interviewers must keep an open mind about the truth of any allegations. Claims of sexual abuse by children should be treated seriously but not necessarily accepted as true. Recording techniques must be improved and a full written record made as soon as possible after every interview with a child making allegations.

Lord Clyde was worried that interviewers 'were unduly concerned with their own agenda', and that there was inappropriate use of leading questions.

The treatment of children removed from their parents must also improve. The report recommends that guidance should be given to social workers on the need to maintain contact with even hostile parents.

The social work department in Orkney and the police, according to Lord Clyde, 'should have made further inquiries in co-operation with the authorities concerned'. Even after the children were removed, the social work department 'failed to support or visit the parents'.

In a key passage which enforces many of the concerns of the South Ronaldsay parents, Lord Clyde recommends that children's views should be given 'due consideration throughout'. The need for more effective co-operation and greater communication between social workers, the police and other agencies pervades the report.

Lord Clyde recommends that in cases of suspected multiple sex abuse, a senior police officer and social worker should be designated to co-ordinate joint work. Where an investigation spans two authorities, similar arrangements should be made.

Lord Clyde suggests a 'central resource' be set up to provide expertise and advice to small authorities like Orkney which find themselves handling a major sex abuse inquiry. The small team of Orkney social workers were said to have grown too reliant on the supposed expertise of the RSSPCC's social workers, thought to be more experienced in dealing with such cases. The report says that if such expertise existed, it was not evident throughout the Orkney saga.

A longer training period for social workers, instead of the present two years, is suggested to overcome such inexperience. Lord Clyde recommends a three- year course be introduced in line with other European Community countries 'as soon as possible' as a first step to improving expertise.

Dr Helen Martini, chair of the group on South Ronaldsay formed to offer support to the parents, said that the report was 'good'. Dr Martini said the parents' support group had never campaigned on the innocence or guilt of the parents involved. She suggested that although there would be calls for changes to the law, the guidelines were already there, but ignored by the agencies involved.

'Recommendations will be made, but a report by Parents Against Injustice who were asked to come to Orkney and look at what had happened made many of criticisms now leveled by Lord Clyde.'

Dr Martini said that if the early interviews and follow up care with the W family had been properly handled 'there would not have been a complex case to worry about. You would never have heard of South Ronaldsay'.

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