The High Court (Justice Peter Jackson) has just published a judgment (one that was actually delivered a year ago) which has some significant lessons for practitioners.
Wigan Council v M and Others 2015
The opening is as clear and cogent a distillation of the pernicious nature of sexual abuse that I’ve ever seen.
- The perpetrators of sexual abuse are inadequate individuals who control weaker people, often children, for their own gratification. Their behaviour is always an abuse of power and usually a breach of trust. They destroy families and blight childhoods. They create dread in their victims by convincing them that the consequences of speaking out will be worse than the consequences of silence. They create guilt in their victims by persuading them that they have somehow willingly participated in their own abuse. They burden their victims with secrets. They poison normal relationships, trade on feelings of affection, drive a wedge between their victims and others, and make family and friends take sides. They count on the failure or inability of responsible adults, both relatives and professionals, to protect and support the victims. Faced with exposure, they commonly turn on their victims, try to assassinate their characters, and get others to do the same. Most often, their selfishness is so deep-rooted that they ignore other people’s feelings and are only capable of feeling pity for themselves.
- The effects of sexual abuse on the victim can be lifelong, but because of the way perpetrators operate, most abuse goes undetected. It takes courage to ask for help. Victims are beset by feelings of shame, guilt and fear. They should be able to have confidence that their accounts will be adequately investigated and that they will be appropriately supported. Instead, experience shows that the abuse is often compounded by sceptical or inadequate reactions within the family and beyond. It is not always possible to establish where the truth lies, but where it is possible to investigate, there must be a good reason not to do so. The position of a complainant whose allegation is described as ‘unsubstantiated’ is extraordinarily difficult, but sometimes ‘unsubstantiated’ is no more than a euphemism for ‘uninvestigated’.
In this particular case, G was 15 years old and made very serious allegations of sexual abuse against her step-father, Mr C. Although these were reported to the police and social workers, what actually happened was that G was removed from the family home and Mr C remained there with other children, who we now sadly know he went on to abuse. Dreadfully, one of the siblings that had been abused, B, had been very outspoken during the investigation into G’s allegations that G was lying.
- In this case, a 15-year-old girl (who I will call G) told the police and social services that she had been subject to years of gross sexual and physical abuse by her stepfather, who I will call Mr C. Having done this, she was promptly banished from the family home by her mother and forbidden from having any contact with her four younger siblings. She then found a home with a kindly neighbour who looked after her for a year, largely at her own expense. Although the investigating police officer and the girl’s social worker regarded her allegation as credible, she was treated as a child in need and no child protection procedures were invoked; instead, after five months’ absence, it was Mr C who returned to the family home, while G herself remained outside the family. It might well be asked: what was in it for this young person to confide in the authorities if these were to be the consequences?
- Two months after Mr C’s return, the second child in the family, a now 15-year-old boy who I will call B, told the police and social services that he too had been the victim of exactly the same kind of sexual and physical abuse (though during the earlier investigation he had denied it). He now corroborated his sister’s account and added that Mr C had also made him engage in extreme sexual activity with her, something she then confirmed. High among the distressing aspects of the matter, B described how the abuse continued after Mr C was allowed back into the home.
I won’t go into the details of what happened to the children, because it is too distressing and unpalatable for most readers. The judgment is very clear as to why the children’s allegations were true and why Mr C had been proven to have done these dreadful things, and of the failures of the mother to react properly (though she did accept by the time of the hearing that Mr C had abused the children).
Instead, I’ll focus on some of the issues that the Judge identified as failings in the investigative process.
After the ABE and medical examination of G (she having alleged that C had been abusing her physically and sexually in unspeakable ways)
- On 4 October, a Child and Family Assessment undertaken by the social worker, Ms W, concluded with the decision that the family would be supported via a Child In Need Plan pending the outcome of the police investigation. As part of the assessment G was spoken to, as were the other children. G said that she felt happy and safe living with Mrs D. B said that there was no truth in G’s allegations. The younger children were also spoken to and at a series of meetings work was done to understand their wishes and feelings and to give them keep-safe work.
- During this period, B wrote a number of fulsome tributes about and to Mr C: for example “I love you more than the world”. In answer to a question “What is the worst thing about my family?”, he wrote “Nothing. Having [G] near him [Mr C] makes me feel uncomfortable in case she says anything else in relation to rumours/allegations about any of my family.” At the same time, B told the social workers that G was a liar and that she was “sick in the head and needs to see a doctor.”
- The mother told the social workers that G was a liar. She flatly denied that G had told her that Mr C was sexually abusing her or that she had ever seen him hit any of the children.
- During the preparation of the local authority’s assessment, a meeting took place on 3 October, attended by the mother and by G and B. G was confronted by her mother and brother calling her a liar, while she insisted that she had told the truth. She was very distressed.
- On 5 November, the police concluded their investigation and determined that no further action would be taken. They did not refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service. Mr C’s bail conditions were rescinded and he gradually returned to live with the mother and the younger four children in December after the keep-safe work had been completed.
- On 20 December, the local authority closed the case. It referred G to its lowest level of support: Gateway Services. She was not even considered to be a child in need.
It is almost impossible to read this and not conclude that a decision had been taken that G was a liar and had made up the allegations, which awfully we now know not to be the case. She was telling the truth and if she had been believed, her siblings could have escaped further abuse and harm.
It was only really when B made serious allegations of the same sort, and importantly that some photographic evidence was found, that things actually moved forward.
Amazingly, it was not until 13 March 2014 — some nine months after G’s initial allegations — that the local authority lawyers were consulted. Even then, it took another eight weeks for proceedings to be started. There were then a large number of case management hearings, largely directed to extracting information from the police. I agree with the conclusion reached by the local authority and the officer in the case that there should have been an early meeting between the local authority lawyers and the police so that the latter’s files could be inspected. As it was, police disclosure was still arriving on the eve of the hearing.
These conclusions are tragic and also contain some recommendations as to best practice.
- (4) Despite clear warning signs, the statutory agencies did not protect these children. Further significant harm thereby came to G by being excluded from the home and to B by remaining there.
- The following is a non-exclusive list of the practice issues raised by the evidence:
(i) The actions of the police in August 2011 and on 1 June 2013 can only be described as cack-handed. By twice being confronted unexpectedly in the presence of the adults, G was effectively dropped in it. Instead of protecting her, these actions made her situation at home even worse and made it even harder for her to speak about what was happening to her.(ii) Against a background of chronic concerns and previous sexual abuse allegations, the social work assessment of the allegations that G made in July 2013 was superficial and inadequate. As a result, the decision to treat these children as children in need, and subsequently to downgrade their status even further, was plainly wrong. There was no risk assessment whatever. There was no analysis of the issues, merely a recital of facts with no conclusions being drawn – see C270. There was no thinking. There was clear evidence in the form of G’s allegations and the family’s striking response that demanded the invocation of child protection procedures. Instead, G’s emotional needs were forgotten while Mr C returned to the home and in the mother’s telling words “everything settled down”. Had a Child Protection Case Conference been called, it would have been an opportunity for an experienced multidisciplinary assessment of this abnormal situation. Proper consideration could have been given to the real needs of this sibling group. G’s anomalous situation in living without contact with her family in an unregulated private fostering arrangement could have been improved. B could have been protected.
(iii) It is disturbing to consider G’s situation at meetings such as the one that took place on 3 October 2013, where she was made to face the hostility of her family. It is no wonder that she was so distressed.
(iv) It is entirely unsatisfactory that no social worker viewed any of the ABE interviews until October 2014. It is a serious imposition on children to record them speaking about such sensitive matters. The least that they can expect is that their social worker will watch and listen to what they have had to say. If crucial evidence of this kind is not absorbed, it is not surprising if misjudgments follow.
(v) The social workers should certainly have asked for legal advice in 2013, well before the case was closed.
(vi) Although Ms H became the children’s social worker back in October 2013, I am in no way critical of the way that she has carried out her responsibilities. This demanding case was the first to be allocated to her as a newly qualified social worker. She was entitled to rely on her manager for supervision and guidance. The local authority has had the opportunity to present evidence showing what that amounted to, but it has not done so. Having heard Ms H give evidence, the first time that she has done so in any case, I was impressed by her grasp of the issues and her willingness to learn from experience. She inherited a case that had already taken the wrong path and she is not personally or professionally responsible for the consequences.