Abuse and the serial offenders

The Ayrshire report reveals familiar deficiencies in investigating child-sex cases, argues Allan Levy

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The public must have been surprised to learn of the decision on Monday by an Edinburgh court to return eight children to the three related families from which social workers had removed them almost five years ago. The three Scottish judges ruled that the children had been wrongly taken into care on the basis of unproved ritual sex abuse.

Persistent parents with great determination have eventually achieved a reversal in the Scottish court of the original August 1990 finding of ritualistic abuse. Two years ago they persuaded the Court of Session to order an inquiry which lasted 12 months. Sheriff Miller, who carried out the inquiry and produced a 400-page report, reached a radically different conclusion, laying the foundation for the senior judge, Lord Hope, to rule on Monday that the children had been "unjustifiably removed". The process took almost five years.

So public assumptions that the line of child case scandals, including Cleveland, Rochdale and Orkney, had come to an end, were clearly misplaced. The fall-out from what Lord Hope called a "tragedy of immense proportions" will be considerable.

Prime consideration must be given to the children, the oldest of whom, now 15, has already been reunited with her mother and father. The other seven, three girls and four boys, will be returned to their homes over a period of time.

The problems caused by this kind of miscarriage of justice are exemplified by one of the girls, who was seven months old when she was taken into care in June 1990, and has had no contact with her parents since that time. At least one other child also has no memory of parents or home.

To help the children cope with the enormous difficulties the Court of Session has appointed curators, including two clinical psychologists. The court said that to take hasty action now may be as damaging to the children's best interests as delay - perhaps even more so. A further hearing is scheduled for next Monday when the court will monitor the progress of the cases.

For the parents, who cannot be named for legal reasons, what they have described as their "years of hell and injustice" are almost at an end. Their lawyers are reported to be looking at the court's judgments before deciding whether to sue for damages. An outstanding House of Lords decision, which has been awaited for some months, may however confer legal immunity from such claims on local authorities - and may well be extended to Scotland.

For parents at large, the Ayrshire case will surely re-awaken fears about how social workers can intervene in their lives. It is also bound further to dent public confidence in the investigation of child sexual abuse, particularly so-called ritual abuse. It is ironic that the first move in Ayrshire was made by the mother of three of the eight children, when she asked social services to investigate her allegations that her husband had abused them. The inquiry mushroomed into a major police investigation concerning claims of a sex abuse ring involving 70 adults and children.

The investigation by social services was severely criticised in the report that the court endorsed on Monday. Sheriff Miller, in his 12-month investigation of the case on behalf of the Court of Sessions, found that the evidence had been so ineptly collected and contaminated that it was, in effect, useless. There were substantial gaps, particularly in the medical evidence, and the approach in 1990 was a flawed one.

It must be noted of course that the events in Orkney, the taking into care of nine children in dawn raids in February 1991, and the subsequent report by Lord Clyde in October 1992, came after the investigation in Ayrshire. However, events in Cleveland in 1987 culminating in the Butler- Sloss report of June 1988 significantly preceded the Ayrshire case. The 320-page Cleveland report thoroughly reviewed the investigation of alleged child sexual abuse and made nine pages of recommendations.

A series of cases in England have demonstrated that some social workers have even now failed to learn the lessons of Cleveland, and have not taken on board the very detailed guidance given by the report. It would seem that much of what went wrong in Ayrshire was a case of Cleveland revisited: the too-hasty removal of children from their homes, the failure to treat children as individuals, the poor interviewing, and the lack of inter-agency co-operation and co-ordination. The same errors were made in investigating supposed ritual abuse in Rochdale in 1990, and later in the Orkney case in 1991.

Despite guidance issued nationally since Cleveland and Orkney, and frequent reminders of good practice made by the courts, it would seem there is still no great confidence thatinvestigations of child sexual abuse will be comprehensive and free from flaws. The effect of the detailed and critical examination of events in Ayrshire in 1990 will only trigger further anxiety as to possible miscarriages of justice.

Indeed, while the spotlight has to a great extent been on the criminal courts, particularly in England, many legal, medical and social work practitioners and commentators would point to the civil and family courts as a more likely source of miscarriages of justice in handling allegations of child sex abuse. Medical evidence is rarely of a certain nature, interviewing of children is a highly skilled activity and evidence is often gathered randomly and improperly evaluated in the investigative stage.

It may not be entirely irrelevant that last year research commissioned by the Department of Health, and noted by Sheriff Miller in his report, threw considerable doubt on the widespread existence of ritualistic or satanic abuse.

Ayrshire is yet another example of an investigation of alleged child sexual abuse that went dramatically wrong. Familiar themes occur: the failure to inquire systematically and comprehensively and collect necessary evidence; a failing in properly evaluating the evidence gathered; a likely rush to judgement and a slow and agonising process reaching the correct outcome. It is said that the bill could run into many millions of pounds. The cost in human misery is incalculable.

Reform of child law was finally achieved in England and Wales with the Children Act of 1989. It does not solve all of the problems concerned with investigations of alleged abuse. It has many flaws but there is as yet no counterpart in Scotland. Legislation is proposed. The pleas of the parents in the Ayrshire case that there should be more safeguards against what they have been through, and more safeguards for their children, should as far as possible surely be reflected in the forthcoming statute.

The writer is a QC who specialises in child law. He represented the Department of Health at the Cleveland inquiry, and two of the families in the Rochdale case.

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