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Thursday, Jan 28, 2021

‘We were abused every day.’ Decades on, children’s homes victims wait for justice

This week an all-party report will demand a reckoning for the epidemic of institutional child abuse in the 1970s and 80s

As police admitted for the first time last week that there was an “epidemic” of institutional child sexual abuse in church institutions, children’s homes, borstals, schools and foster families in the 1970s and 80s, chief constable Simon Bailey, the national lead for child protection and abuse investigations, said: “We do not understand the true scale of it … untold damage has been done to victims and survivors.” On 11 February a damning report by the all-party parliamentary group on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse will be highly critical of the support and resources available to these children, now in their 50s, 60s and older, many of whom have spent a lifetime with their experiences not believed and redress unobtainable.

The report is titled Can Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse Access Justice and Support? and the conclusion is an emphatic “no”. Based on two years’ work, it finds all the major services, including police, health, crown prosecution and courts, are failing to address a potential national crisis, with support services struggling to meet demand.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that 3.1 million people aged 18-74 were sexually abused in childhood. However, only one in seven callers to the helpline of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood had previously disclosed abuse.

The new report, “a manifesto for change”, calls for better data on the scale and cost of the challenge. It acknowledges progress including increased investment in survivors’ health and a police pledge card giving better information. However, only 54% of survivors had reported their abuse to the police, and two in five were not taken seriously. Only 16% of those who accessed NHS health services felt their needs were met.

Sarah Champion MP, chair of the parliamentary group, said: “True recognition of the impact of child sexual abuse would mean investment in preventative and early intervention services, including high-quality therapeutic services, trauma training for frontline health, education and welfare professionals, and a criminal justice process that respects and accommodates the needs of traumatised survivors.”

Last Wednesday Paul Sinclair, 57, a recovering alcoholic suffering from heart disease and PTSD, attended the Independent Inquiry into Childhood Sexual Abuse. It was the final day of an examination of accountability and reparations available for childhood sexual abuse (CSA). In 1974, aged 12, he was sent to Forde Park School, a brutal home in Devon. “We were abused every day, punched, kicked, teeth broken.”

Originally, there were 90 survivors, now there are six. In 2001, Sinclair’s evidence helped to convict John Ely, a housemaster, found guilty of 24 counts of buggery and sexual assault. The police inquiry cost £3m. Sinclair received £2,700 in compensation. “It was take it or leave it,” Sinclair said. “I felt totally disillusioned. We received no apology. I went to London to drink myself to death.”

Mountainous barriers to redress exist. The 1980 Limitation Act, for instance, intended to cover issues such as industrial injuries, not child sexual abuse, means an individual must apply for compensation before their 18th birthday or be “out of time”. In reality, it can take decades before a person discloses.

Adversarial lawyers acting for insurance companies seeking out fraudulent claims also drive down compensation rates, while survivors’ files are frequently “missing”. It took poet Lemn Sissay 35 years to obtain his records. Courts can award compensation following a conviction but only 26 criminal compensation orders were made in sexual abuse cases in 2017 in England Wales – 0.4% of the total (average £1,076), including £20 awarded following a conviction for the rape of a child.

Professor Alexis Jay, chair of the inquiry, says the process is, “frustrating, hostile and ultimately futile”.

Ricky Drinnan, 52, was placed in care aged 11 and moved to six children’s homes. He was physically abused, absconded constantly and always caned. Drinnan became a prolific burglar, and was often in prison. “I was so angry. I hated myself and the system.” His last offence was in the 90s. He is seeking £30,000 compensation from Wigan Borough Council to help put his life back on track. “I was a child lost in care,” he said.

Wigan said Drinnan is “out of time”; physical abuse doesn’t count in case law and his records were destroyed 20 years ago. James Winterbottom, director of children’s services, said all abuse was “unacceptable … which is why we work fairly and sensitively with individuals bringing claims”.

Unlike Wigan, Lambeth Borough Council has its own redress scheme. Lambeth has borrowed £100m from central government. It has no “out of time”, and a “harm’s way” payment of £10,000 is paid for feeling at risk in a home plus higher payments for physical and sexual abuse. In addition, a survivor receives an apology, therapy if required and help with housing, education, employment and benefits. “It’s using taxpayers’ money but we felt it was right,” said councillor Andy Wilson. Campaigner Raymond Stevenson, representing survivors of Lambeth’s homes, is critical of the scheme’s fairness and its lack of independence from the council. “Is the motivation genuine redress or to avoid further litigation?”

Child abuse lawyer David Greenwood, in addition to ending “out of time”, wants an independent statutory body to license those who work with children, enforce safeguarding standards and deal with abuse complaints plus mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse.

Nottinghamshire Survivors’ advocate David Hollas is lobbying for an offence of corporate neglect, “misconduct in public office”. “People at the top of the tree, ultimately accountable for the destruction of thousands of lives, currently go on to even higher honours,” he said.

Victims’ Commissioner Vera Baird said: “Survivors ought to feel they have rights and are restored by the system not further damaged. If we act correctly now, hopefully we will never require an inquiry like IICSA ever again.”

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