Our dereliction of duty

Child abuser Frank Beck said it all in 1991: children in care are still at risk.
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The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child carries enormous authority because it has been ratified by more than 180 countries, including Britain. It binds the Government to take all appropriate measures to protect children from abuse in all its forms, particularly sexual abuse. One area in which the Government is plainly failing to act effectively is in respect of some of Britain's most vulnerable and disturbed children in residential care homes.

Scandal after scandal has surfaced since the pioneering "pin-down" inquiry in Staffordshire five years ago. Recommendations have been made, committees and support groups set up, and much said by politicians. The reality, however, is that today a child in residential care may well be a child in danger.

The Staffordshire inquiry in 1990put a searchlight for the first time on children's homes. The uncovering of an unlawful regime of restraint, involving isolation, humiliation and confrontation in so-called "pin-down" rooms, received huge media coverage. A wide range of recommendations were made, covering recruitment, training and supervision of staff, conditions in the homes, inspections, complaints procedures, methods of restraint, protection from sex offenders and standards of child care.

These were considered to be issues of national importance, and the protection of children from abusers was highlighted. The report produced national shock waves and triggered an upsurge of interest in and concern about the whole field of residential child care. Local authorities were instructed to check their homes for similar problems and to report to the Secretary of State for Health within one month.

At the request of the Government, Sir William Utting, then Chief Inspector of the Social Services Inspectorate, produced urgently a review of residential child care. He concluded in August 1991 that it was an "an indispensable service", and that the homes needed to be managed, inspected and monitored carefully and staffed with professionally qualified personnel. He noted that one of the major problems was that the residential care of children was commonly regarded "as an unimportant, residual activity", whereas the reality was very different. He also pointed out that 70 per cent of the staff employed in homes lacked a relevant qualification.

Following the Utting report, the Children's Homes Regulations 1991 were brought in, an expert group was set up to examine appropriate training, and the Howe report considered residential staff. Howe recommended major improvements in management, including a requirement that external managers should be experienced or trained in residential care. The topics of supervision and training, support of staff under stress and better career opportunities were again considered.

Further abuse that came to light in 1992 and 1993 in Wales (Ty Mawr), Sheffield and Leicestershire deepened the concern about children in residential care and reinforced the urgent need for the recommendations already made to be implemented. After the Utting report, the then minister for health, Virginia Bottomley, said that the Government accepted the thrust of all the recommendations and "would be taking action forward urgently to make the best use of available resources".

The Leicestershire inquiry, which covered sexual abuse of children by Frank Beck between 1973 and 1986, went over by now familiar ground, including failures regarding recruitment of staff, complaints and investigation procedures. The report noted that "it would not be wise for anyone to approach this report on the basis that it all happened a long time ago and that nothing like it could ever happen again". The Leicester inquiry led to the Warner committee considering in particular selection and recruitment methods and criteria for staff working in children's homes.

The Warner report expressed concern that "there have been so many inquiries whose findings seem to have gone largely unheeded by the service as a whole". That report noted that there were far too many examples of poor management and that it was essential that management, staffing levels, training and support for staff were improved. The physical condition of many homes needed urgent attention and the status of children's homes and their staff had to be raised. In response, the Government set up the Support Force for Children's Residential Care, which was to last two years and offer advice to individual authorities on the relevant issues.

Yet despite all the expert attention these scandals have received, we appear to be no nearer to providing an effective solution to the problem. This amounts to a dereliction of duty to children in public care. Further scandals have surfaced in Northumberland, Islington, Cheshire and particularly North Wales. Private children's homes have also come under the spotlight, and last year one social services director complained about the Government's policy of deregulation, which allows private homes to operate with a minimum of outside supervision.

One of the children who suffered under the pin-down regime said that she was not frightened when she ran away from a particular residential home in Staffordshire because wherever she went could only be better than where she had come from. It would be foolhardy to think that abuse is not happening now in children's homes and that it will not occur in the future.

It is clear that there is a failure of leadership, both on a national and a local level. The Government in particular must provide a practical lead in dealing with a national problem requiring oversight, co-ordination and action. The findings and recommendations of numerous inquiries have gone largely unheeded.

The ethos of deregulation and the placing of responsibility locally will not do. The running down of the social services inspectorate, which has a vital role to play, is unacceptable. Recommendations repeatedly made over the years for an effective register of individuals convicted of relevant offences must actually be heeded.

A general social services council is obviously necessary in order to set and monitor standards for care workers. Improved training, better systems of supervision and inspection and the registration of homes are other vital matters.

Overall, children merit a specific individual who will work for change and for their protection. Other countries have either a minister for children, for example Ireland, or a children's rights commissioner, as in New Zealand and Sweden.

Only, for instance, if effective recruitment methods are in place will abusers be deterred from insinuating themselves into homes. A company set up recently offering skilled vetting procedures has gone out of business because its services were not taken up. If abuse does occur, there must be proper complaints procedures and effective action.

Residential care is recognised as an important resource for our society. But it must now be properly resourced, if it is to provide a safe haven for children. We owe nothing less than this to some of our most vulnerable citizens.

The writer chaired the Staffordshire "pin-down" inquiry in 1990-91.