Soon after the sound of New Year bells fade and the New Millennium comes of age, I will have spent almost 45 years living close to children and young people looked after by the state and the adults they become. For the most part, it has been a joy and a privilege but as the curtain closed on the last decade, it ended for me as it began in disillusionment.
At the beginning of 2010, I was shocked to learn there was a willingness to ignore lessons from the child abuse scandals in the eighties and nineties when concerns about excessive and unauthorised physical restraint that had been overlooked by inspectors were not investigated. Astonishingly, this was just one year after the court of appeal ruled in 2009 that the physical restraint used on 14-year-old Alan Rickwood that preceded his death at Hassockfield Secure Training Centre was an assault. After this, seeds of doubt flourished in my mind during a long tour of professional rebuffs that ended with Sir Michael Wilshaw refusing to revisit this failure when he took up the position of HMCI in 2012.
In the aftermath of this, I struggled to accept that those responsible for this regime would not be called to account. But soon after, I took comfort in the Hillsborough disaster report published in September that year and in the knowledge the evidence was safe and truth could not be denied. Then in 2014 my hopes were raised when news of the national child abuse inquiry was announced, but not for long. Little more than a month later I witnessed the submission of false evidence during the trial of a carer charged with sexual offences against 3 girls living in 3 different children’s homes.
I knew this man did not have an impeccable work record, his personnel file would validate this and there were witnesses in court who knew it, one had even confessed under oath that she had failed to report a previous disclosure. But my protests were pointless, the judge was advised that notes I had passed to the barristers announcing this were not a matter for his attention, and to my dismay, I was advised that the law does not permit the introduction of new evidence during a trial. In this circumstance, it came as no surprise to me that he walked free even though there was doubt in the minds of some in the jury.
After the hearing, I wrote to the Chief Inspector and the Police Commissioner in search of an opportunity to discuss what I had witnessed and what I knew about this case in the hope that lessons could be learned. But beyond a one-line acknowledgement from the office of the police commissioner, there was no interest in what I had to say and this was becoming a worryingly familiar experience. Years before the Rochdale grooming ring scandal hit the headlines, it was well known that children in care were being targeted and sexually exploited. The police called it a lifestyle choice, blamed missing children on carers, and failed to respond to calls for assistance from staff following vehicles driven by armed men.
In 2007 a young person who was moved 60 miles from one children’s home to another was pursued within 48 hours by a man claiming to be her ‘friend’ and another was located in a hospital with life-threatening injuries three days after she was picked from a children’s home. She had been stabbed during an argument by the man who took her, but nobody wanted to listen to the horror that was unfolding in towns and cities across the country, that carers walked the streets in the middle of the night searching for lost girls and spent hours in accident and emergency rooms waiting for medics to tend the mental and physical wounds of these atrocities.
When the story finally sparked media interest, carers were again in the line of fire and any hope of reclaiming the trust that was lost when the shock waves that followed widespread revelations of child abuse in the eighties and nineties imported deterrent regulation and gave birth to the prove it a game. Without doubt, too many children were abused by too many carers but what has followed has not delivered the improvements promised and sadly too many children are still being failed.
It is in this decade I experienced the arrival of venture capitalists and soon learned from my board room experiences that this was not the environment for me. I had already known that inspection reports had a commercial value so it came as no surprise to me that some have put more effort into playing the ‘prove’ it game or that shareholders and owners with no affinity to the children or communities they serve have entered the ‘market’ to exploit the availability of public funding for economic gain. But I am stunned by the part regulation has played in the formation of huge care companies and still plays in the suppression of smaller highly innovative enterprises.
Sadly, this decade has turned the clock back 40 years for me, to memories of an alcoholic officer in charge who took a bottle of whiskey to work every day, a cruel housemother who stole the children’s food for her own family and whistleblowers who sacrificed their career for the truth. At the beginning of 2010 I had struggled to understand why the concerns I raised about the use of unlawful and dangerous physical restraint were ignored, then in 2014 news of the wide-ranging national inquiry into child sexual abuse raised my hopes but these soon evaporated on receipt of this 2017 response…” as you will appreciate, given the wide remit of the Inquiry, it is not possible to investigate every allegation of institutional failure it receives…” Since then my collection of ‘fob off’ letters has grown considerably and now includes several highly questionable refused freedom of information requests.
I have witnessed the making of millionaire’s and the unfair disqualification of caregivers, seen children sacrificed for a good inspection report and good homes close because of poor ratings, and it is with these thoughts in mind as the curtain rises on the next decade that I remain determined to lift the shroud of secrecy that denies the truth, persecutes the powerless and stands in the way of justice in the world of children’s social care.
“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” ― Czesław Miłosz
Amanda Knowles MBE
1 January 2021