29th July, 2021 4:08 pm
Staff and councillors presided over a “culture of cover-up” that led to more than 700 children in south London care homes suffering cruelty and sexual abuse, an inquiry has found.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse strongly criticised Lambeth Council for allowing abuse in five homes from the 1960s to the 1990s.
It said abusers were able to to infiltrate homes and the foster system.
Lambeth Council has made an unreserved apology to the victims.
And a former council leader said the authority had “clearly failed” and she should have known about the abuse.
The Metropolitan Police also apologised “for when we let children in the care of Lambeth down”.
The inquiry into the council, held in the summer of 2020, examined five homes – Angell Road, South Vale Assessment Centre, the Shirley Oaks complex, Ivy House and Monkton Street.
The Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report said: “With some exceptions, they [Lambeth Council staff] treated children in care as if they were worthless.
“As a consequence, individuals who posed a risk to children were able to infiltrate children’s homes and foster care, with devastating, life-long consequences for their victims.”
Of the 705 complaints made by former residents across three such facilities, only one senior member of staff was ever disciplined by the council, the report said.
At Shirley Oaks, which closed in 1983, the council received allegations of abuse against 177 members of staff, involving at least 529 former residents.
The council was mired in corruption and financial mismanagement during the decades of abuse, with “politicised behaviour and turmoil” dominating its culture, according to the report.
The report partly blames the Labour council’s battle against the Conservative government in the 1980s, saying it sought to “take on the government” to the detriment of local services.
“During that time, children in care became pawns in a toxic power game within Lambeth Council and between the council and central government,” the report added.
The IICSA is calling on the Met Police to consider a criminal investigation into why allegations of sexual abuse made by a boy, later found dead at the Shirley Oaks care home, were not passed on to the coroner by Lambeth Council in 1977.
The force said it would assess this recommendation.
Shirley Oaks and South Vale were found to have been “brutal places where violence and sexual assault were allowed to flourish”.
Another care home, Angell Road, “systematically exposed children (including those under the age of five years) to sexual abuse,” the report said.
Elizabeth McCourt, who was sexually abused at Angell Road care home, said she could not forgive Lambeth Council.
The 56-year-old told the BBC she was forced into prostitution because of the council’s “negligence”.
“I felt dirty, I felt ashamed and I felt like I had nobody to listen to me,” she said.
“Because of what happened to me in care, and then coming out of care, I can’t hold a job down… I’ve got a criminal record so it’s very difficult for me to work.”
Sandra Fearon, who was at Shirley Oaks between 1964 and 1969 with her siblings, said she was violently sexually abused by a doctor from the age of 12.
She told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme the abuse continued every week for two years until her school intervened, after she was able to tell a school nurse what had happened to her.
“I got to the point where I was probably seconds away from suicide. That’s how bad my health was and the state I was in,” she said, adding that the abuse “absolutely destroyed me”.
Children spent time with “social aunts” or “social uncles”, volunteers who worked with children without proper vetting.
One such volunteer, Geoffrey Clarke, stayed at Shirley Oaks with regular and unimpeded access to children there from the early 1970s.
He was convicted of sexually assaulting three children in 1998, but Lambeth Council is now aware of at least 40 people who have made allegations against him.
Clarke was charged with numerous abuse offences as part of Operation Middleton, one of five police investigations into child sexual abuse linked to Lambeth Council from 1992 to the present date. Clarke took his own life before his trial.
The inquiry criticises the Metropolitan Police for its failures to follow up evidence that may have led to the identification of further offending.
Six men have been convicted since the 1990s in connection with abuse in Lambeth.
They include: William Hook, jailed for 10 years; Philip Temple, jailed for 18 years; and Leslie Paul, sent to prison for 13 years.
Michael Carroll was appointed to work in a Lambeth care home in 1978 despite abusing children previously in Liverpool and failing twice to declare his offences, including when he applied to be a foster carer. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 10 years in 1999.
The report made a number of recommendations, including that the council publishes an action plan to deal with the issues raised, as well as improving staff training, recruitment and vetting.
Lambeth Council has accepted the recommendations and apologised to the inquiry for creating and overseeing conditions “where appalling and absolutely shocking and horrendous abuse was perpetrated”.
It has also paid £71.5 million in compensation to former children’s home residents, with individual payments of up to £125,000.
Linda Bellos, who led Lambeth Council between 1986-88, said she was “shocked” and “disgusted” by the abuse revealed in the report.
Ms Bellos, who was not called to give evidence by the inquiry, told the BBC: “I should have known, there should have been transparency for the services that we were supposed to be giving to vulnerable children.”
“We clearly failed. I hold myself responsible for that failure,” she added.
Commander Alex Murray, from the Met Police, said: “It is clear that at different times we missed opportunities to identify offenders and investigate further. Some of the treatment of children was also unacceptable.”
He said the force had changed the way it investigated allegations of child sexual abuse, with better training for officers, greater collaboration between social care partners and “putting the victim at the heart of the investigation”.
The long-running IICSA is investigating claims against organisations including the church, local authorities and the armed forces.
Its final report of overarching findings will be laid before Parliament next summer.
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