A voice for lost innocence

July 12, 1996

For over 20 years some 100 children in one county were sexually abused while in care. Jane Tunstill was a member of the inquiry into what went wrong, but its report was never published. Now at last, she tells Lucy Hodges, the silence over those unspeakable horrors has been broken

Jane Tunstill is not used to censoring her words. As an academic - professor of social work at Keele University - and a teacher of the next generation of social workers, she is used to making a reasoned argument based on research. "That is what you are paid your money to do," she says firmly. "You profess your view and you argue and justify it and are prepared to explain it."

Which is why it has been difficult for her as a member of the independent inquiry into institutional abuse in children's homes in Clwyd, north Wales, to accept suppression of the Jillings report, named after the retired social services director of Derbyshire who chaired the inquiry. "For me it has been a very unusual and unpleasant experience to be explicitly suppressed," she says.

Clwyd councillors decided not to publish the report in one of their final acts before their authority was abolished under local government reorganisation in April. They had been advised by their insurance company, Zurich Mutual, that publication would lay the council open to claims from people abused as children. Tunstill objects to that decision on the grounds that it is not in the public interest, though she sympathises with councillors faced with the kind of advice Clwyd's received.

"Is the primary duty of a local authority to maintain their insurance cover or to address their duties towards children and young people?" she asks. "Do we need an amendment to the Children Act or the Local Government Act to make that crystal clear?" But she is gratified that what has become known as a gulag archipelago - the abuse of children in care across the country - is finally being taken seriously by the government and that a judicial inquiry is being set up into the allegations of widespread paedophilia and cruelty in residential homes in north Wales. A second inquiry will examine the wider issues of residential child care across Britain.

Although the 300-page Jillings report has never been published, it has been widely leaked. Its contents are well known: more than 100 children sexually abused over 20 years, of whom 12 subsequently died, a figure the report describes as disturbing. Four hanged themselves, two took overdoses, one was unlawfully killed in a fire, one fell, one died of solvent abuse, another of alcohol abuse, one was found dead in a car and another died of a fit in his impoverished flat.

All the clues that abuse was going on were there for 20 years, the Jillings panel found, but no one spotted them. It criticised all the agencies involved - the Welsh Office for refusing the request of Clwyd's director of social services for an inspection of one home where there had been abuse, the police, education, health and social work professionals. And it called for an urgent inquiry into the police investigation of complaints of child physical and sexual abuse in Clwyd's residential homes, similar to the one that took place after the Frank Beck scandal in Leicestershire.

Since the revelations in Clwyd, new information has poured out of Cheshire where up to 300 children may have been abused over the past 30 years, six care workers have been jailed and more cases are pending. In addition to setting up the inquiries, the government has announced plans for a register of sex offenders, including an index of paedophiles. The silence over the unspeakable horrors suffered by young children in care has finally been broken.

It is clear why Tunstill, 52, was on the panel appointed by Clwyd. Not only is she outspoken, she is also extremely knowledgeable, with a long career in child care. One of her first jobs was as a child care officer in Croydon. She has lectured in social work studies at the University of Surrey and has had research fellowships at the universities of East Anglia and Leicester. Her last job was policy adviser to the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations. While at Surrey University she undertook a joint study of how the police investigate allegations of child sex abuse.

Despite all this experience, she still found the facts unearthed in Clwyd shocking. "I think it did surprise me," she says. But she pays tribute to Clwyd for having commissioned the inquiry . Why has it taken so long for the horrific facts to emerge? She does not really know. And she thinks we are only just taking the lid off. It is partly because children are being encouraged to speak out, and given people to talk to (ChildLine, the advocacy projects run by voluntary child care organisations, the requirements in the Children Act for complaints procedures). Such things are slowly changing the climate, she thinks.

Is it a coincidence that the revelations of widespread abuse have been coming out of relatively remote areas like north Wales and Cheshire? There has been a long history of "dumping" problems out of the area, says Jane Tunstill. Mental patients used to be dumped, for example. "Over the years there has been a reliance on far-flung places, which may have some advantages like more open space and being further away from the neighbours, to place more difficult children," she says. So rural areas like north Wales may be appealing. "I think the jury's out as to whether there is a concerted decision on the part of people with paedophile inclinations to concentrate on those geographical areas where they think they're least likely to be found out. If I was a paedophile I probably would be attracted to places where the whole inspection and accountability process might be less likely to get me. I might think that about a rural area or where there's a smaller inspectorate."

The Welsh Office has a much smaller outfit than its equivalent in the Department of Health. While there is a suspicion of outsiders in Wales - an antipathy to welcoming people from other authorities - which does not make for healthy public services, Tunstill believes it is a mistake to overemphasise how different north Wales is. If there was abuse in children's homes there, it probably occurred elsewhere too.

One of the problems with child care workers is that they are badly paid and often not trained. It is difficult to separate out issues of recruitment from those of pay and training, according to Tunstill. Residential child care workers leave institutions to get extra qualifications but then often do not go back to residential work because it is so stressful. "You never drive away from the problem," she says. "You're on the job all the time, fielding a range of very complex relationships. You may or may not have as much support and information as you want. You're increasingly uncertain about how to restrain children." Until residential social work carries good status and pay, nothing will change, she says. "If you're not going to offer a decent salary, career and training structure, why would you expect to be picky about who you give the jobs to?" In the old days there were no police checks. Even today questions are asked about their adequacy and reliability. According to Tunstill, you need complaints procedures, independent visitors, and you need to encourage links between children who are in care and their own birth families. The last is essential for the psychological welfare of the children. It is also a serious protective device because parents are likely to take complaints from their offspring seriously. "We need to get away from the mindset that children lie," says Tunstill. "Over the years the adults who should have responded in Clwyd to allegations didn't. There was a general tendency to think that children like to make trouble."

Was there a paedophile ring operating in north Wales? Tunstill does not know. But we all belong to informal networks, she says. People with particular emotional and sexual inclinations have no trouble passing information between one another. "It would seem to me there may well have been," she says.

For her, one of the great ironies in the new revelations is just how unsafe are the institutions to which society sends children who are vulnerable and in need of protection. Many children in residential homes are there because of problems in the family, not because they have been delinquent. She argues passionately for more support for families before deciding to take children away from them. In the past 15 to 20 years, social work has focused on protecting children instead of supporting their families. The tide has been turning a bit with the 1989 Children Act. "For a long time the most skilled and experienced practitioners in child care felt it was more important to get into child protection," she explains.

There is some hope that the two inquiries set up by the government will open up the debate about how best to meet the needs of children. Certainly there is hope that the judicial inquiry into what went on in north Wales will be able to nail down allegations by subpoenaeing witnesses and requiring documents to be produced, which the Jillings inquiry was unable to do.

There have already been ten internal investigations by Clwyd, several of which covered residential homes. None was made public. "Many of the professions interviewed by the independent panel expressed the view that Clwyd social services was very good at reviewing itself but has failed consistently to learn from its mistakes and been unable to implement a full range of appropriate safeguards," said the Jillings report. It listed four issues of fundamental importance for a judicial inquiry, the first of which is that children have a right to safe group living. All the issues should be addressed in the full view of public scrutiny, it said.

Tunstill is personally committed to openness in her work. Academic freedom is important to her just as it is to her colleagues at Keele. But openness is also important in social work. It makes for a safe system for children and young people, and a safe system for staff. "I want to feel our students go out with a clear commitment to seeing - and telling the truth," she says.

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