Jeremy Laurance: Agencies should have picked up on the signs that would have revealed abuse

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The Independent Online

Judge Alan Goldsack said it was the worst case he had come across in 40 years. Amid the horrific details of the Sheffield father, the daughters he repeatedly raped, the miscarriages and abortions they endured and children they bore him, one question overwhelms all others. How did he keep his activities secret for so long?

It beggars belief that abuse on such a scale, over almost 20 years, could go undetected. Did no one notice the children, abused from the age of eight, behaving strangely at school? Did GPs, nurses, midwives, health visitors and social workers never stop and wonder about the composition of the family – with nine children borne by the two daughters who suffered many other abortions and miscarriages – or the relationships within it? What about friends, neighbours, and visitors to the house?

The case has parallels with that of Fred West, the Gloucestershire serial abuser and murderer who, with his wife, Rosemary, tortured, raped and murdered at least 12 young women, including their own daughter, over a period of 20 years, from 1967 to 1987, without anyone apparently knowing.

Sex abusers are notoriously skilled at avoiding detection. They start by terrorising their victims into silence. In this case, the father beat his daughters if they did not comply with his demands, issued threats and ruled the household by fear – his wife and children hid in their rooms when he returned home. He was tall and strongly built and there was no possibility of resistance.

He relied not only on their fear of him but also on their fear of being separated. A call to Childline by the women was abandoned when the counsellor was unable to guarantee that they could keep their children.

When a doctor challenged one of the daughters about the identity of the father of her child, she flatly denied it was her own father, recognising that to admit it would trigger an investigation and the break up of the family.

He also employed the common tactic of moving around from village to village – presumably changing doctors and schools – to keep ahead of anyone who might put two and two together. By moving house repeatedly, neighbours and public agencies do not have time to allow their suspicions to coalesce.

In this case, it seems that doctors did pick up the signs which prompted one to put the crucial question to one daughter about the father's role. But when his question was dismissed, he failed to act on his suspicions. The independent review of the case announced yesterday by Jayne Ludlam, director of children's services at Sheffield City Council, will have to address this matter and many others. Alert agencies should have picked up the tell tale signs that could have revealed the abuse and spared the family years of suffering.

Coming so soon after the Baby P case, it is another dismaying chapter in the failure of social services departments to protect children. But that such events could happen involving so many children for so long, without attracting attention, in 21st century Britain raises much wider, deeper and more uncomfortable questions about the country we live in.