Abuse and the serial offenders

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

Related Topics
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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Sales Advisor - OTE 18k-23k

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of Ford's leading Parts Who...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to learn ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Lead

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading providers of w...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Day In a Page

Read Next

No wonder 1,000 women a year are getting abortions because of extreme morning sickness. When I was suffering, my doctor said it would 'cure' me

Jo Crosby

Election catch-up: It looks more and more as if we should get used to Prime Minister Miliband

John Rentoul
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders