Silencing a scandal – the story of Colin Smart

Published April 1998 One comment... »

This is a story we are not supposed to tell. It is about a man named Colin Smart, a mild-mannered, rather bookish character who spent his working life in local government looking after children, and who rose in the early 1990s to become the Director of Social Services for the city of Sunderland.

One of the few things which has always been certain about this story is that while Colin Smart was doing that job, he came across something that worried him a great deal. We know, too, that this was something to do with the abuse of children, that he made a fuss about it and that somehow, in the midst of that fuss, he ended up taking early retirement. For the most part, the rest has never been revealed.

Colin Smart, of course, knows the whole story. However, he is not allowed to tell it, because shortly after he retired, his former employers at Sunderland City Council took him to the High Court where, under threat of losing his pension and paying out a fortune in damages, he signed an undertaking never to speak publicly about what he knew. Being an honourable man – and also a frightened one – he has kept to that undertaking.

Nevertheless, with the help of others who have been involved, we have been able to piece together most of what happened. It is an alarming tale, about a man who thought he saw signs of a scandal, who was moved to expose it and to rescue its child victims and who was then frustrated and obstructed at every turn until finally he was stripped of his power and silenced. It is, in other words, the anatomy of a cover-up. And that is the first clue.

Cover-up has become part of the story of child abuse, particularly in the children’s homes which were swept by a wave of rape and assault during the last three decades. Over and over again, somewhere in the midst of this wave, a lonely figure would appear, yelling for help, only to be ignored or submerged by the powers that should have reached out a hand.

In North Wales, it was Alison Taylor, the manager of a children’s home, who spent five years banging on the door of her employers at Gwynedd Council, the police, the Welsh Office, the Department of Health, and the Social Services Inspectorate. All turned her away. Undaunted, she compiled a dossier of 75 separate allegations, won the backing of two local councillors and finally secured the conviction of four men for an orgy of abuse. As a result, the Government finally ordered the vast public inquiry which has now heard nearly 300 former residents of homes make detailed complaints of physical and sexual assault against148 adults. By that time, however, Alison Taylor had been suspended and sacked.

In South Wales, several years later, it was Karen McKaye who was thrown out of her job after demanding that children’s complaints be investigated. Her refusal to be silenced finally provoked a major police inquiry into events at the Taff Vale children’s home in Cardiff. Now, 32 other homes in the area are also being investigated. Three men are awaiting trial over alleged incidents at Taff Vale. In relation to the other homes, in April, Robert Starr was jailed for 15 years for indecent assaults, and three others have been arrested.

In Warrington, Elaine Bowerman spent a decade trying to persuade her union, Nalgo; her employers, Lancashire County Council; and the police to do something about the indecent assaults and violence which she said were being inflicted on children with learning difficulties at Massey Hall School where she worked. She complained, for example, of the occasion when she had seen brown fluff blowing across the lawn and discovered that it was a boy’s hair which had just been pulled from his head by a senior member of staff. Eventually, she went to the parents of some of the children to warn them – and was sacked for gross misconduct.

By March 1996, Elaine Bowerman had apparently lost everything – the struggle to expose the truth as well as her job. Then two boys from the school approached her at home. She put them in touch with police who re-opened their inquiry. In June 1997, they charged Robert Boyle, aged 50, with indecent assault on pupils at the school between 1982 and 1995. He was said to have handled boys’ genitals in the showers, although he claimed he was simply examining them for medical reasons. In April, he was acquitted by a jury at Warrington Crown Court.

However, the jury convicted him of lying about his past in order to get his job. When the judge sentenced him for this offence, the Crown disclosed for the first time that in 1977, Boyle had been convicted of six assaults on young boys. He had caught them stealing, the court was told, and given them a choice of being punished by the police or by himself. He had then beaten their bare backsides with a gym shoe or a baton. He had also fondled their genitals, claiming that this was for medical reasons. He had concealed this throughout his time at Massey Hall. Elaine Bowerman, who had consistently claimed to have seen Boyle indecently assaulting boys in the showers at the school, was not called as a witness. Other staff against whom she has made allegations have not been charged. She remains unemployed.

In Colin Smart’s secret history, the most significant hard facts are the ones that have emerged most recently. Last August, the NSPCC completed an inquiry into the care of children at a council home in Sunderland called Witherwack House. They produced a detailed report, which was confidential, but the Guardian has obtained a copy.

The NSPCC team bluntly named 23 men and women who had been identified to them as abusers who had physically and sexually assaulted children at Witherwack during the 1970s and 80s. Their report noted the frequency with which particular names recurred and the way in which different witnesses, including a former member of staff, independently described some of the same incidents. “These allegations are consistent in nature,” they commented.

They described, for example, the care worker who had had sex regularly with a 14-year-old girl with the eventual result that she had had to have an abortion; the boy who had been burned across the back with a heated metal tray; the string of boys who had been used for sex by a woman worker; the boy who had been beaten with a snooker cue; the boy who had been kicked by a man wearing heavy boots; the apparently endless beatings and punchings; the numerous times that children had been pinned to the floor with their arms stretched high above their backs; the two different boys who complained that staff had incited an older boy called Darren Rowe to rape them; the supervising officer who had failed over and over again to heed the complaints of the children in his care.

They described, too, two girls who, from the ages of eight and seven, had become sex objects for one particular care worker who used to bend them over a bed and rape them every week or so. Both of those two girls, now young women in their 20s, have been haunted by the experience. One has lost the ability to cry. The other obsessively cuts the flesh on her arms and occasionally tries to kill herself. In an account of her abuse, she wrote: “I felt I was just put on this earth to suffer.”

The NSPCC team made it clear not only that they found these allegations credible but also that the responsibility for this went beyond the abusers themselves: “It seems regrettably impossible to avoid the conclusion that, during at least some of the time that Witherwack was open, Sunderland City Council did not meet its legal duty to promote and safeguard the welfare of at least some, and possibly many of the children and young people who lived there.”

Now, go back in search of the first hard fact in this hidden story, back more than six years before the NSPCC published that report, to April 1991, when an astute local reporter, Nigel Green, heard about a woman care worker who had been sacked by Sunderland City Council for some kind of sexual assault on a boy who was in her care in a council home called Witherwack. In search of confirmation, he sent a fax to Sunderland City Council, whose press officer took it to the man who had recently taken over the city’s social services department – Colin Smart.

Smart was clearly an outsider in the city. He had been in the job for only two months, and he belonged to none of the tribes that run politics in the north east – the Catholics in Jarrow who settle politics in the social club after Sunday mass, the masons who recruit councillors and officers from every local authority in the region, the Labour party who are so strong that they can run a city like Sunderland as a one-party state.

Nevertheless, his position was reasonably secure. He was deeply experienced in his work. Unlike most directors of social services, who tend to be professional civil servants, Smart was a career social worker who had specialised in child care. He had also spent the last 17 years running the much smaller social services department in neighbouring South Tyneside, so he knew a little bit about how the tribes worked – enough to know that this reporter’s fax could cause trouble.

A senior official who worked in the council says that Smart reacted swiftly to the fax. He called a meeting of officials and, although he was not able to uncover much detail, he established very soon that this woman had indeed been sacked; furthermore that two other care workers at Witherwack, both men, had also been sacked at the same time; that this had all happened more than three years earlier in October 1987; and, most significant, that the police had never been told about any of their alleged offences against the children. Smart was obviously alarmed – the failure to tell the police was not only improper but arguably unlawful. He was also obviously frustrated, because for reasons which were not then clear, he was quite unable to find out any of the detail about what had happened.

Most of those who were at the meeting assumed Smart would now follow the well-beaten path to the door of the various councillors who controlled the city, and that they would make sure that the affair was kept within their control. However, they did not know their man. Colin Smart had a history of standing up for himself. Years earlier, he had been a member of the Committee of 100 and when magistrates had ordered him to renounce Bertrand Russell’s campaign of direct action against nuclear weapons, he had refused and been punished with six months in jail. Now, instead of going to the councillors, he went straight to the police.

It is not clear whether Smart realised at that time quite how much trouble this would cause him, specifically whether he realised that the three Witherwack workers had been sacked without a word to the police because the council had wanted it that way and had insisted that the police should never be called in without their permission. Whether he knew it or not, the fact is that Smart triggered a crisis which was to unfold with increasing force over the next ten months as Smart fought to uncover the truth, while powerful figures in the council resisted him.

Whether he was oblivious to the danger or simply courageous, Smart not only called in the police but proceeded to set up a small team of officials from his department with an instruction to find out the whole truth about the three sacked worker – and to report back directly to him.

Those around Smart feared he was politically weak. He told one of them that he had turned down an invitation to join the masons when he first became a director of social services, in South Tyneside. Now, he was working in a city with 34 lodges, including one called the Civic Lodge, which was entirely devoted to officers and councillors – Smart’s colleagues but not his tribesmen. Some of those who worked with him began to suspect that the truth about the three sacked workers was being deliberately concealed from him.

It was some months before the team came up with anything concrete and, when they did, the result was alarming. Smart had been led to believe that the problem at Witherwack was simply that three workers had been sacked for some isolated sexual incident. Now his team reported a cluster of complaints of beatings and indecent assault against various workers, not only the three who had been sacked. The workers were said to have attacked girls and boys in the home and also to have enouraged older children to batter smaller ones who caused trouble. A 14-year-old boy was said to have conducted a campaign of sexual assault on other children while social workers took no action to stop him.

More than that, the team reported, the home had adopted a regime of systematic physical abuse, whose methods were an uncomfortable echo of the “pin-down” scandal which had just erupted in Staffordshire. Difficult children were violently restrained and locked in an empty room for days at a time. One boy had been squashed on the floor with a heavily-built woman worker on his back and his hands pulled up behind him for so long that eventually he had vomitted. And the evidence suggested that this culture of violence enjoyed the approval of some councillors – which appeared to explain why Smart had found it so difficult to uncover its details.

When Smart now met with his team, the position was clear: four years earlier, the council had sacked the three staff for cruelty and sexual assaults during a summer camp, and had then not only failed to tell the police but had also failed to take any steps to discover whether these three might have been involved in other incidents or whether other care workers might also have committed offences against the children of Witherwack. And, despite the Staffordshire scandal, the council had left their “pin-down” regime intact.

Once again, Smart now acted without giving the councillors a chance to intervene. He went back to the police and told them what his team had discovered; and then he went right to the top – to the Department of Health in London to ask for the Social Services Inspectorate to mount a special and urgent inquiry into Witherwack and other children’s homes in Sunderland. To avoid any possible interference from the tribes, he asked them to use inspectors from outside the area.

These decisions, according to a senior figure, provoked an undeclared war in the city council, with some councillors and officials now colluding to find a way to remove Smart from his job. There was nothing discreet about some of the fighting. At one point, a councillor distributed around the building some beer mats which were supposed to promote a campaign against drinking and driving: the councillor had scratched out the message and left only the headline slogan – “Get Smart!”

The children at Witherwack were soon caught in the cross fire. As soon as he had found out about the regime of violence at Witherwack, Smart had ordered it to stop. He did so with all the authority of the Department of Health, who had been alarmed by the pin-down scandal in Staffordshire and had asked all local authorities to ensure that there was no such regime in their area. But as the weeks went by, Smart was informed that the violence in Witherwack had not ended. Indeed, the evidence was that it had got worse. Furthermore, he was told that after he had instructed staff to change the regime, the home had been told behind his back and without proper authority to carry on as before.

The politicking evidently served only to drive Smart deeper into opposition. He told his team to trawl back through the files of all children in their care to see whether there were any other signs of unchecked abuse – unexplained injuries, for example, or unresolved complaints or any pattern of allegation around any particular care worker.

In the meantime, he had the police – led by an outstanding detective named David Wilson – and the Social Services Inspectorate digging out the truth. Towards the end of the year, the SSI produced a first draft of their report in which they confirmed that Witherwack House had been running “a repressive regime” with “inappropriate and high levels of physical restraint and a failure to protect children from abuse”. It added: “Inspectors read on file and were told by children of a number of incidents where restraint seemed to border on assault. These included complaints from children about restraint which were not fully investigated.”

A month later, at the end of January 1992, Smart’s small team reported back to him the results of their general trawl through the files of children in Sunderland’s homes. The result was devastating. They had found signs of systematic mismanagement, of consistent failure to heed complaint and they had produced a list of suspicious incidents which had apparently not been handled properly. It covered just about every children’s home in the city, it identified more than 50 girls and boys as possible victims of physical and sexual violence and some 30 staff as possible abusers.

Smart had uncovered a scandal. More than that, as he made clear to colleagues, he believed he had uncovered signs of an endemic failure in the system of care to which he had devoted his career. He and his team had found children who were living in dirty rooms with broken furniture and carpets that were sticky with filth; children who sat down to a supper of nothing more than an apple or a biscuit; and who faced a thrashing if they stepped out of line. In their draft report, the SSI, too, had seen signs of structural weakness, complaining of the staff’s inadequate training, of incomplete records, poor buildings and weak management.

Eight months later, Smart wrote an article for the Guardian, headlined Kids In Crisis, in which he disclosed none of the facts about Sunderland but expressed the feelings of a man who had spent his career in a system which, he now believed, was damaging the very people it was supposed to be helping. “It is debatable,” he wrote, “whether the majority of children now in residential care have been more harmed by the circumstances which brought them into the system, or by their time with social services.”

Having reached this point of despair, Smart had no moral alternative but to fight on. He took his long list of possible victims and abusers to the chief executive. He took, too, a short list of named individuals whose continued interference in council business, he argued, would mean that children in the city’s care would never be free of abuse – not because they themselves were child abusers but simply because they were playing politics with the welfare of the children.

And he issued an ultimatum: the council must re-investigate his long list of worrying incidents in the homes; they must expand his trawl through children’s files to ensure that they knew about all of these incidents; they must tackle the alleged abusers to ensure that none who were guilty continued to work with children; they must help the victims with therapy and counselling; they must set up proper inspections for the homes from now on. Smart wrote to the chief executive and offered him him a choice: either he supported Smart in his war against the council, or Smart would resign. A few days passed. Then Smart got his answer: the chief executive accepted his resignation.

After only ten months in his job, Colin Smart went home. His supporters hoped that they might yet win, with the police and the SSI on their side. Over the next few months, they watched as the council wrestled to regain control.

The local press were fed a steady trickle of disinformation – that the Social Services Inspectorate had been conducting a routine inquiry; that it was the SSI who had noticed that the police had never been called in to deal with the three sacked workers; that the council had called in the police as soon as this was discovered; that Smart had left because he could not cope with the demands of the job.

The police were soon sidelined. Detective Chief Inspector David Wilson, who had now charged the three sacked workers with more than 20 offences, found himself being attacked by Nalgo, the union which represented many of those who were accused of abuse, and, more important, by councillors, some of whom had the ear of senior officers. The pressure to sack Wilson reached the point where the Chief Constable had to issue a public statement, underlining his confidence in him. Nevertheless, shortly afterwards, for whatever reason, Wilson was moved off the inquiry.

The Social Services Inspectorate was neutralised. Their report was published and accepted in Feburary 1992, but by then the council had commissioned their own report from a retired civil servant named Emlyn Cassam. When he published his findings, in May 1992, he confirmed the problems, criticised the council’s failure to deal with them but, crucially, he strongly advised the council not to dig out the history of abuse in the childrens’ homes. This “picking over the bones” would be bad for morale, Cassam said, and it would distract resources away from current abuse. The most that they might do, he suggested, was to set up a hotline so that those who had been abused could make contact if they chose to. Following his advice, the council stopped all attempts to dig out the truth. Ignoring his advice, they did not set up a hot line.

Colin Smart, however, did not give up. At home in the autumn of 1992, he prepared his own report – five volumes, four about child abuse in Sunderland, covering 230 pages, and one about the care of the elderly, covering a further 70. Late in December 1992, he sent them off to the police, the SSI, the Department of Health and the Secretary of State, who was then Virginia Bottomley. Mrs Bottomley wrote back to thank him. Smart passed a message to the council to say that he would be happy to discuss the reports with them. They didn’t write back to thank him. They sued him.

They issued a writ for breach of confidence, complaining that he was using confidential information about clients of the Social Services department, putting the good work of the department at risk, potentially perverting the course of justice in the trial of the three care workers and risking the confidential relationship between government departments. They said he must surrender all of his information, undertake not to disclose it to anyone else and pay them damages.

But an internal memo about Smart, marked private and confidential, which has been seen by The Guardian, makes it clear that the council had another, rather different reason for gagging him. By this time, two former residents of Witherwack were suing the council. According to the memo to senior councillors, written by the director of administration, Colin Langley: “The solicitors acting for our insurers in respect of the claims by former residents of Witherwack, are concerned about the effect upon the conduct of those cases and the implications for further claims. I have, therefore, agreed with them that High Court proceedings be taken against Mr Smart for the return of any documents and to restrain him from any further publication of council documents.”

Smart went to court, in March 1993, aghast at the prospect of paying damages, confused by the law, indignant that the council were using public money to keep the public in the dark. His lawyers warned the court that this was a perversion of the court of justice. The judge hesitated and the two sides struck a deal. Smart would hand over his information and sign an undertaking not to discuss publicly what he knew; the council would drop their demand for damages and let him off with paying £5,000 out of his savings towards their costs. Smart told friends he felt stitched up, but his feelings made no difference. He was now gagged. A couple of opposition councillors called it a cover-up. So did the Sunderland Echo. The council were unmoved.

One small part of the truth was revealed, in October 1993, when the three sacked workers from Witherwack finally found themselves in the dock. The court heard how staff had given the children ‘speedies’ (knuckle-punches to the head) and power punches to the body, how they had made them run a gauntlet of kicks and blows between two lines of other children. The jury heard of the boy who had been brought back after running away and been made to eat cigarette butts off the floor before being given his dose of power punches; of the staff whose training consisted of being told “Shut your gob and watch your arse.”

The proceedings were liberally scattered with hints of official collusion. June Parker, a nurse who had worked at the home, said:“I think even the civic centre knew what was happening.” One of the accused had told police: “I am guilty of silence. I needed a job. What was I supposed to do?” The trial judge damned the council. “You may think the conditions at Witherwack were appalling and the policy not to employ trained staff in 1985 unfortunate. You may ask why conditions were so bad or why this behaviour which clearly was criminal was not reported to the police earlier.” Later, he answered his own question:“The reason for the delay was the hope on the part of the council that the case would never be resurrected. The evidence proves that the council were inept and happy that the problem would simply disappear.”

At the end of the trial, one of the accused was acquitted but the other two care workers, Kevin Roffe and Glynis Tamblin, were convicted and given suspended sentences of 12 months each. And that was it. One trial, two convictions. If the judge wanted to know why the council had concealed this crime for three years and allowed the poor conditions to persist so long, no one was about to tell him. If Colin Smart wanted to know the truth about all the worrying incidents he had listed – if he wanted to know whether his 30 suspected abusers were still working with children – no one was about to find out.

It was not that the council did nothing. The new director of Social Services acted on just about every recommendation that was made to him. Nevertheless, the council left the dark heart – the history of child abuse in their homes – untouched. The SSI were long gone (and several of their inspectors were now working for the council). The police had stopped their inquiries. The council had stopped theirs. No one resigned. No one was blamed. And Colin Smart could not even open his mouth to complain.

There was, however, just one loose end. The children. By now, they had grown up. Some had found work and settled down. Others had bounced from one kind of trouble to another: one wing of Wakefield Prison housed three former residents of Witherwack. None of them had forgotten. Some of them had tried, but none of them had succeeded. And every so often, one of them would feel a surge of pain and go to the police to make a statement or to a lawyer to make a claim for compensation. The police would make inquiries and say there was not enough evidence. The lawyers would file suit. And almost unseen, a strange thing began to happen.

Each time that one of the former victims made a move, another victim emerged to give support. Two of them were already suing the council. As they moved forward, three others came forward to join them. When they succeeded, winning a total of £23,000 from a council which still refused to admit liability, more came forward.

There was the girl who had been sent to Witherwack when her mother died, who had done her best for a few years until one day, when she was eight years old, when one of the careworkers had walked her into her room, stripped off her knickers and raped her. The man enjoyed this so much that he fell to repeating the experience every week or so. There was the man who, as an eight-year-old, had been continually roughed up and hassled by a worker who simply could not stand him and who eventually devised a cunning new torture, by inciting an older boy to bugger him. Twenty six former residents joined together to fight.

They decided to go public, to campaign for a proper inquiry. They went to the Sunderland Echo who backed them with a series of tough stories and set up a hotline for survivors. They went out into the street and gathered signatures. They marched on the city hall. They set up more legal actions, all suing in support of each other. One quiet night, a small group of them turned up on Colin Smart’s doorstep and asked for his help. Even though he was gagged, he agreed to write to the Secretary of State.

The council resisted. The new director of Social Services said it had all been investigated already. The new vice-chair of the social services committee said: “This is not a case of new evidence but a case of new publicity. The allegations were fully investigated in 1992.” But the former residents of the children’s home kept pushing and eventually, in April last year, they persuaded the council to ask the NSPCC to conduct an inquiry.

When they delivered their report, in August last year, with its damning list of 23 suspected abusers at Witherwack alone, the NSPCC advised that the council should admit publicly that children had been abused and should express their formal regret. The City Council called a press conference at which the director of Social Services expressed his regret, albeit in limited fashion. And Northumbria Police announced that they were re-opening their inquiry into abuse at Witherwack and other homes in Sunderland. The man appointed to lead it was David Wilson, now a Detective Chief Superintendent.

Now, finally, the truth has begun to emerge. For the former residents there is still a long way to go – evidence to be gathered, trials to be held, justice to be done – but in an arduous story of frustration and despair, the NSPCC report was a moment of triumph. From his place on the sidelines, Colin Smart is still watching in silence as the cover-up finally cracks.

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