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Survivors tell of 'embedded culture of abuse' and denial in children's residential care during 70s

Latest report from Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse's Truth Project hears disturbing evidence...

Survivors told of being discredited when they disclosed abuse
Survivors told of being discredited when they disclosed abuse

Published by Professional Social Work magazine - 6 November 2019

Sexual abuse was seen as “a normal part of life” for some children growing up in care homes during the 70s, an inquiry has heard.

Those who tried to tell someone what was happening to them were often met with “denial and an absence of action” within a culture of abuse that was “accepted and covered up by staff”.

The findings come from 2,328 sexual abuse survivors giving testimony to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s Truth Project. Of these, 191 were abused in care homes between the 1940s and 2000s, with the majority taking place in the 70s.

The inquiry found survivors of sexual abuse in care homes often experienced physical abuse, present in 39 per cent of cases. Psychological abuse and bullying were also suffered by 31 per cent and 19 per cent of those giving evidence.

Former residents in children homes spoke of suffering “repeated sexual abuse, including rape, over a prolonged period of time”.

The Truth Project report added: “A high proportion of participants abused in residential care had experienced multiple episodes of sexual abuse, involving different, unconnected perpetrators.”

While most abusers were male, a higher proportion were female compared to in non-care home settings.

A lack of supervision allowing perpetrators to take children off site without question and unmonitored contact on-site enabled abuse to happen. For some, it continued into independent living settings.

Abusers were most commonly residential care workers in positions of authority (47 per cent) with older residents making up 25 per cent of abusers. Seven per cent were ‘other professional’ and five per cent members of the clergy.

One witness said they were abused by people referred to as “uncles” or “helpers” who were allowed to take the children out for the day or even on holidays abroad.

In most cases, the abuse took place soon after moving into residential care. One survivor said it happened after disclosing she had been previously abused by her uncle.

A small number talked about sexual abuse “following” them from one institution to the next, believing it was an “endemic” feature of their lives.

Some described rooms at care homes that seemed “dedicated to abuse-related activities”.

Four out of ten told someone about the abuse at the time, most commonly reporting it to someone in authority within the home.

Most, however, were met with "denial or an absence of action", a failure to take their allegations seriously "character defamation" and "the reframing of the abuse as 'innocent' or 'natural'."

The report identified six characteristics of that enabled child sexual abuse to take place in residential care. An “embedded culture of abusive behaviour” was one, with some places having “multiple staff” that “colluded in and orchestrated” abuse.

Unqualified staff given care responsibilities was another, along with lack of supervision and professional boundaries; “out-of-sight” spaces that perpetrators could exploit; absence of a trusted person for children to speak to (many survivors said they didn’t have a consistent social worker); a lack of action and a “cover up” culture toward allegations.

Survivors described how the abuse affected them in later life, with a higher proportion reporting suicide attempts, criminal behaviour and difficulties with relationships, education and employment.

When asked what needed to change, the most common answer from survivors was for children reporting sexual abuse to be believed and having a trusted person to report the abuse to (35 per cent each).

Many (27 per cent) said supervision of children in care homes needed to be increased.

Dr Sophia King, a principal researcher for the independent inquiry, said: “A lot of the participants came from very violent and fractured backgrounds. Some of them thought residential care was a place of safety after the upheaval they faced in life before.

“What they experienced was an embedded culture not just of sexual abuse and multiple sexual abuse but also other forms of abuse such as physical, bullying and neglect.

“I am a professional researcher, but there are shocking accounts. It can be hard to hear at times, but it is worthwhile. It is important we share these experiences and give people the opportunity for their experiences to be heard.”

Dr King added it was not possible to say sexual abuse was widespread in children care homes as the findings were based on a “self-selecting” sample of those coming forward to give evidence.

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers