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Hundreds of children abused while in care of Lambeth council, inquiry finds

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2021-07-27
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Lambeth town hall. Photograph: Alamy

Hundreds of vulnerable children in the care of Lambeth council in south London were subjected to horrendous cruelty and sexual abuse over several decades on a scale that was “hard to comprehend”, an independent inquiry report has found.

The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse ( IICSA ) found more than 700 allegations of sexual abuse against hundreds of staff and individuals connected with just three homes in the borough. The true scale of abuse was likely to be far higher, it said.

It said Lambeth council had allowed violence and sexual assault to flourish in its children’s residential homes, had failed to act against known abusers, or tackle the brutal, harsh and punitive culture of its homes – with devastating consequences for many children in its care.

“It is hard to comprehend the cruelty and sexual abuse inflicted on children in the care of Lambeth council over many years, by staff, by foster carers and their families, and by volunteers in residential settings,” the report concludes.

Although most of the children had been taken into care after suffering violence and neglect at the hands of family members, the report noted that for some “the experience they had [in the residential homes] was worse than living at home with their birth families”.

The council failed on multiple occasions to protect children, including employing staff who it knew posed a risk to children, failing to investigate employees suspected of sexual abuse, and exposing children to situations where it knew they were at risk of abuse.

The effect on many children in Lambeth’s care was devastating, the report says. As one witness, known as LA-A309, put it: “I felt from an early age that my feelings were inconsequential or of little value and that my pain didn’t matter. It was clear from an early age that no one really cared about me.”

Over 40 years just one senior employee was disciplined for their part in the catalogue of abuse. Six perpetrators of sexual abuse connected to Lambeth homes, some of whom were council employees, were convicted of child sexual abuse between 1994 and 2019.

Many staff in Lambeth children’s homes “demonstrated a callous disregard for the vulnerable children they were paid to look after”. Some failed to act when they knew about sexual abuse, and showed little compassion to the victims. “It was as if staff intended to create a harsh and punitive environment,” the report concludes.

It is also critical of the children’s services inspectorate, Ofsted, and its predecessors, for failing to to do enough to identify the serious failures in services and staff practices, and the Metropolitan police for failing to properly investigate links between offenders identified in separate criminal investigations.

IICSA has recommended the Metropolitan police investigate the case of one child, known as LA-A2, who was found dead in a bathroom in one of the homes, Shirley Oaks, in 1977. The report found the council had failed to inform the coroner that he had alleged he was sexually abused by a staff member there.

The leader of Lambeth, Cllr Claire Holland, said: “Lambeth council wishes to re-state our sincere and heartfelt apology to all victims and survivors of abuse and neglect while in Lambeth’s care. The council was responsible for their care and protection but failed, with profound consequences. The council is deeply sorry for their experiences.”

The report is scathing of what it calls the “progressive” leftwing culture of the council in the 1980s. “Many councillors and staff purported to hold principled and beliefs about tackling racism and promoting equality but in reality they failed to apply these principles to children in their care.”

It notes that the overwhelming majority of children in its homes were black. At Shirley Oaks in 1980 57% of the children in care were black; at South Vale home children a decade later 85% of the children were black. “Racism was evident in the hostile and abusive treatment towards them by some staff.”

The chair of the inquiry, Prof Alexis Jay, said the children in care were pawns in a “toxic power game” within the council in the 1980s and 90s, which was characterised over many years by bullying, racism, nepotism and sexism, against a backdrop of political chaos, corruption and financial mismanagement.

She added: “This all contributed to allowing children in their care to suffer the most horrendous sexual abuse, with just one senior council employee disciplined for their part in it. We hope this report and our recommendations will ensure abuse on this scale never happens again.”

The IICSA report is its third since 2018, following previous inquiries into Rochdale and Nottinghamshire councils. It focuses on conditions in five of Lambeth’s care homes in the borough from the late 60s, especially a period in the 70s and 80s when it says physical and sexual abuse in its children’s homes was “pervasive.”

The Lambeth inquiry held five preliminary hearings between 2016 and 2020, and a final public hearing over four weeks in June and July last year, with evidence from 57 complainants, survivors and victims, from expert professional witnesses and former staff and councillors.

A government spokesperson described the report as shocking, adding: “Protecting vulnerable children and keeping them safe from harm should be a top priority for local authorities, as well as for all those responsible for their care, including carers and the professionals working with them.

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