LEADING ARTICLE:The lessons of Cromwell Street

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Over a period of nearly 30 years Fred West was killing women and children. For most of that time his wife, Rosemary, aided and abetted him. Most of us cannot come to terms with how terrible the last minutes of Rosemary West's 10 victims must have been, how appalling is the suffering of their families. So the personalities and tragedies - even the names - of these victims will recede from public consciousness to be replaced by the legend.

But in the here and now, there are some serious questions to be asked. How could so many murders have taken place over such a long period of time without anyone blowing the whistle? How is it possible that the police and social services could have seen Frederick West on, it is believed, no fewer than 60 separate occasions, without intervening more decisively?

Some will argue that these were different times. The attitudes that prevailed when most of the killings took place made the discovery of the terrible crimes of Midland Road and Cromwell Street less likely. The extraordinary failure to prosecute the Wests for the rape of Caroline Owens in 1973 - and their subsequent pounds 50 fine for sexual assault - was partially a product of the police fear of how rape cases were then dealt with. They felt that Ms Owens would be seen as somehow asking for it. An opportunity to take decisive action against the Wests was thereby squandered.

As the Bridge Childcare Agency report into the deaths of Charmaine and Heather West makes clear, there were appalling failures of co-ordination and watchfulness by social services, police, schools and hospitals. Neither the police nor the courts informed social services about the Owens case. The schools were slow in noticing signs of abuse and desultory in following them up. The health service treated a 15-year-old girl for an ectopic pregnancy and gonorrhoea, without informing social services. Meanwhile, the body count rose. As late as 1989 the NSPCC failed to act on the case of one of the West boys who had been hit with a mallet. Subsequently the file "went missing".

Since the period when most of the West murders took place, other cases have forced a change of attitude and policy on the authorities. The Maria Colwell case in 1973 led to a much more proactive approach on the part of social workers towards cases of child abuse; the Butler-Sloss report into the Cleveland cases in 1988 established the need for far better inter- service co-ordination. In all, there have been more than 20 inquiries into the handling of child abuse cases in the past two decades. In addition, the attitudes of the courts towards sexual assault and rape have hardened considerably since the early Seventies. Police and public have become sensitised to the issue of how children are treated, and far more aware of their own responsibilities.

These changes, however, do not mean that all is now well. Far from it. Each time a case has been investigated we have learnt something - especially when that investigation has been independent and public. So in the West case we now need just such an inquiry which - unlike the Bridge report - will cover the failure of the police force and be completely independent.

Of course, we must remember just how unique the Wests were. Ill-educated and inarticulate they may have been, but when it came to spotting and exploiting vulnerability they were geniuses. The absconder from the children's home, the troubled foster-child, the lesbian teenager - all were grist to the Wests' mill. Operating their conscienceless double act, they were also adept at convincing those around them that what appeared abnormal was, in fact, perfectly normal.

But their uniqueness does not absolve us from the responsibility of discovering everything that we possibly can in order to ensure that no one else dies simply because we failed to put two and two together.