Most Secret Crime 4: System failure

The Guardian, June 5 1998

Daniel Handley was unlucky. He was riding his bike near his home in the East End of London one dark Sunday afternoon in October 1994 when he was spotted by two men who had gone out in their car that day with the specific intention of finding a boy whom they could abduct and rape and kill. Daniel died that evening. He was nine.

Infanticide by a stranger is one of the rarest crimes in this country, and it was the rareness of Daniel’s fate as well as its nastiness which caused such shock and which inspired the Metropolitan Police to invest such a huge effort in finding those responsible. But three and a half years later, with Tim Morss and Brett Tyler serving life sentences from which they have been told they will never be released, the man who caught them looks back with little satisfaction.

Detective Superintendent Ed Williams, who is now retired, recalls, for example, that early in his inquiry he contacted NCIS, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, to get a list of all known paedophiles in the area. This should have been a leap forward since, as events finally proved, one of the killers worked in the area and the other lived there. In reality, however, neither of them showed up on the NCIS list, because overwhelmingly it was out of date and inaccurate. “Frankly,” says Williams, “it was a hinderance to our inquiry.”

Williams goes on to describe how he tried to call up the files from Operation Orchid, the inquiry into paedophiles (including Robert Oliver and Sidney Cooke) who had raped and killed at least three young boys in the East End of London some ten years earlier and who, as events finally revealed, were linked indirectly to Daniel’s killers. Williams had hoped that somebody in the intelligence department would have collated the information that Orchid had gathered. He was wrong. Not only had the Orchid intelligence been left without any kind of analysis, it had been lost.

This was not a complete surpise. Williams had recently carried out an audit of sex offender files in one of London’s eight police areas and discovered that more than 30% of the files involving serious offences were simply nowhere to be found. When he turned for help to the Scientific Intelligence Unit at Scotland Yard, which is supposed to collate intelligence on all sex attacks, he found it consisted of only one officer and one secretary. “It is outrageous,” he said. “One officer cannot possibly absorb and assimilate all of the data that comes in from the whole metropolitan area. It’s an impossible task.”

These failures were, Williams believes, part of a wider failure which damages the policing not only of freak events like the murder of Daniel Handley but of the whole range of child abuse. “Child protection is not macho. Those who are involved in it are looked at askance by Met police officers. They don’t have the same status as the Regional Crime Squad or the Flying Squad.” Williams, who has had long experience of investigating child abuse, has come to a simple conclusion. “The response is inadequate,” he told me. “We are not doing enough.”

The abuse of children is, in itself, frightening. When you first lift the lid and peer down into this huge hidden reservoir of suffering, when you start to glimpse the unbelievable scenes of torment and despair, when you begin to take in the sheer scale of child abuse in this country, it is hard to accept.

But a deeper anxiety starts when you stand back and look instead at the intricate defences we have built, the sprawling complex of laws and guidelines, all strapped together with checks and threats, all designed to prevent any more children falling into this pit, all of them run by thousands of men and women, most of whom are extraordinarily dedicated and passionate about their work and almost of all whom say the same thing as Ed Williams: “It doesn’t work.” Indeed, in some respects, they say, it is getting worse.

And when you hear this said – sometimes as confession, sometimes as bitter allegation – not only by social workers and police officers and customs specialists who spend every day of their working lives at the edge of this pit, but also by the most senior government officials, the most learned academics, the most powerful law enforcement officers in the country, when over and over again they say that the power is with the paedophiles then finally you begin to see the real horror, that we have put our trust in a child protection system that doesn’t protect the children.

You see it in Cardiff where, in 1989, a British Transport police officer opened a locker in the bus station and found a suitcase full of photographs of naked children in sexual poses. He passed it to the police and social services. Who did nothing for seven years. This suitcase full of evidence of abuse was left to gather dust and would have laid forever unattended if detectives who were following up complaints from the local children’s homes had not finally decided to check it and found a treasure trove of leads which they are still pursuing.

You see it in Newcastle in the Lindisfarne Children’s Forensic Centre where, on two different occasions recently, they have treated two-year-old girls who have been suffering from gonorrhoea. They did everything they possibly could for the two girls – one of whom was said to have been “pouring pus” – but, on both occasions, the men who had done this to them walked away unpunished and unchanged. The system could not hold them.

You see it, too, in the notorious case of Robert Oliver, the predatory paedophile who was released from prison last year and disowned by one police force after another – driven across the border in a police car from Thames Valley to London; shoveled on to a train out of town by Manchester police; finally, taken on by Sussex police, whose chief constable Paul Whitehouse had to make policy on the spot, covertly following him, then offering him protective custody and finally persuading him into an institution for treatment.

The system which is supposed to detect paedophiles and neutralise their threat works only spasmodically. Take as a single snapshot the experience of Hereford and Worcester Social Services, an unusually innovative and energetic department, who decided to review the outcome of all of their child sex abuse referrals in 1991 and 1992. They found they had dealt with 148 cases. Almost all of the suspect abusers – 141 of them – had walked away without being charged with any offence. Of the seven who had been charged, three had been acquitted, one had been released without trial when his alleged victim could not face giving evidence, two had been released with a caution, with the end result that only one abuser out of the 148 cases had been convicted and sentenced.

At a conference on child abuse in London in February this year, social workers from all over the country agreed that their experience was similar. The short story is that most child abusers are never detected; most of those few who are detected, are not prosecuted; and most of those who are prosecuted: are not convicted.

The system has been pushed off track by the combination of two simple facts about child abuse: it is widespread, almost epidemic in scale, involving, at a conservative estimate, 1.1 million offenders; and it is hidden, less often reported by its victims than any other offence and less often corroborated. The result is that at every stage the normal procedures are inclined to fail to detect the abuse and to deal with the perpetrator. By the time you reach the extreme, where people like Morss and Tyler start hunting down a nine-year-old boy on his bike, the whole project is wildly off course. And yet government has allowed it to remain that way.

Only 15 years ago, the government was refusing even to acknowledge the existence of the secret epidemic. Michelle Elliott, the American doctor who runs the Kidscape charity, recalls with fury how in the early 1980s she asked a senior Whitehall official why the government refused to add sexual abuse to the official list of reasons why a child might be registered as being at risk: “He said that the United States might have a problem with this, but they didn’t come across enough cases here to justify recognising it.”

Now, even though Whitehall has finally moved, the fact that this crime is largely unreported has produced a devastating weakness in the police response. One of the most senior officers in child protection nationally told the Guardian bitterly: “All of the Home Office key objectives are about clearing up reported crime. There is no incentive at all to deal with unreported crime.”

The effect of this was illustrated dramatically in 1986 when two senior detectives in Kilburn, Roger Gaspar and John Lewis, decided to ditch normal procedure. A social worker had reported a suspected incident of abuse. Instead of dealing simply with this one reported crime, the two detectives decided to dig. The more they dug, they more they found. Eventually, they uncovered 653 allegations of abuse in Kilburn, they charged 20 different adults with serious offences and prosecuted them in a series of three major trials.

When the inquiry closed, the two detectives produced an internal paper. It was entitled “People not Property” and it argued the case for setting up a central, pro-active unit to dig out evidence of hidden child abuse. They pointed out that Scotland Yard’s specialist squads were all devoted to protecting property, because a crime against property is nearly always reported – arts and antiques, cheques, counterfeit currency, stolen cars, frauds, robberies, burglaries. They wanted a squad that protected young people. They said they could gather intelligence by visiting runaway children who had returned home, or victims of abuse who had had time to recover, or convicted paedophiles who were serving sentences. Once they had the intelligence, they could target the suspects.

It took years of pressure and a series of other reports before Scotland Yard finally agreed to set up a small ‘proactive’ Paedophilia Unit which now works primarily by seizing child porn and using it as intelligence to trace the abusers and the children who have been involved in its production. But they are almost alone. West Midlands Police have a similar unit. After dealing with three major inquiries into abuse in children’s homes, Cheshire, too, now have a permanent proactive unit.

Across the rest of the country, however, almost every other Chief Constable has taken the easy route. In the last ten years, they have all been told to set up Child Protection Units, who rescue children and deal with offenders when incidents are reported. They are widely praised for their work, but emphatically they are not being used to go out and dig up unreported crimes against children.

The Home Office knows all about this weakness. In 1995 they commissioned an inquiry into the policing of child abuse which concluded that they needed “a radical improvement in the investigation and prosecution of offenders” and that they must target offenders as well as responding to victims. This inquiry was built from the views of 32 officers from ten Child Protection Units, who produced a stinging attack on the policing of child abuse.

They said their own units were untrained and unsupported, that they commanded few resources and even less respect. The Home Office report concluded: “The unanimous view (of the 32 officers) was that at best police forces demonstrate an ambivalent attitude towards child protection work, and one police service was reported to be openly obstructive to the further development of its very low level of current provision.”

The Association of Chief Police Officers, ACPO, also is aware of this weakness but it has no policy at all on whether to set up more proactive units. Tony Butler, the Chief Constable of Gloucester, who has the ACPO job of defining policy on child abuse, claims they can do more by educating adults to be alert and by improving the links between existing police units. “I have to be realistic,” he told me. “I’m not patrolling bedrooms and scout halls.”

The few police who do deal with child abuse across the country echo Ed Williams’ complaints about the chaotic intelligence back-up. The same Home Office research disclosed that although child protection officers tried to develop their own local card indexes, their systems were ‘incomplete, haphazard and inaccessible.’ To make connections between different scraps of information, the officers said, they often relied simply on memory.

And they hammered the national paedophile index at NCIS, which has only nine staff processing intelligence on every suspect abuser in the country. The Home Office report quoted some of their comments: “NCIS is a waste of time… The Paedophile Index? Where is it? Can someone give me the phone number?… You can sometimes get through, but you can never get anything out.”

In its annual report last year, NCIS said they were holding the details of 25,000 suspected or convicted paedophiles. And yet, according to the Home Office Research Department, there are 108,000 convicted paedophiles in the community. In other words, the national database on paedophilia has no information on at least 85,000 convicted paedophiles, whose whereabouts, work, activities and associates are all unknown. Quite apart from the estimated one million others who have never been convicted.

Tony Butler last month set up a working group of senior police to review NCIS’s performance on paedophilia. “I’m aware of the anxieties that operational officers are currently expressing,” he told me. The question is whether Butler will tackle the underlying problem – that the big resources have gone into the high-profile reported crimes, like drugs and armed robbery. Child abusers command only one more member of staff at NCIS than football hooligans.

An abuser who is unlucky enough to be detected will then enter the criminal justice system, only to enjoy the advantage of a similar set of structural weaknesses. Even though more abusers are now being reported, the number who are being successfully prosecuted has declined steadily since 1988. Sir William Utting, who has conducted two searching reviews of child abuse, told a London conference in February that conviction rates of child abusers had declined to alarming levels. “Patent abusers are not convicted or even prosecuted,” he told the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Delinquency.

The problem is rooted in the special nature of this hidden epidemic. Even though Whitehall was finally forced by a series of scandals to admit that children were being sexually abused, it did so without shaking off its basic preconception that all this was being frightfully exaggerated by overzealous social workers. In the aftermath of several high-profile fiascos, in Nottingham, the Orkneys and Cleveland, when allegations of the most serious abuse collapsed in procedural chaos, the Department of Health reflected this caution in a Memorandum of Good Practice. It was intended to deliver justice. Ten years later, it is a cliche among specialist police and social workers to describe it as ‘a paedophile’s charter’.

The Memorandum’s key advice is that interviewers should establish a rapport with the child; that, for fear of tiring and confusing the child, they should interview only once and then only for an hour; and that, for fear of putting words into their mouths, they should ask the child no leading questions. Prosecutors and judges have taken the Memorandum to heart and routinely reject any case which breaches any part of this advice.

Earlier this year, for example, a nine-year-old girl who had complained of being raped by three boys in her primary school toilets, saw her case thrown out by an Old Bailey judge on the grounds that the police officer who interviewed her had asked her one leading question. The same judge had allowed the same girl to endure hostile and leading questioning by professional advocates for more than two days.

In Coventry, police and social services have lodged formal complaints with the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor’s Department after a judge threw out a case in which they had invested just over two years’ work. Five adults had been accused of the relentless rape of three young children from babyhood. Each of the three children gave video interviews. Unlike many other children, the boy, by now twelve years old, was bursting to disclose. There was medical evidence to support their stories, including permanent physical damage. The children’s stories, independently told, corroborated each other.

When the case came to court, the barristers for each of the defendants took it in turn to complain about the video interviews and, in particular, about the fact that the boy had been allowed to go straight into his disclosures without being taken through the ‘rapport’ phase described in the Memorandum. After three and a half days of legal argument, the judge threw out the case without even selecting a jury.The five alleged abusers scattered to different parts of the country.

Tony Butler, the chief constable responsible for policy on abuse, is furious about cases like these. Butler sat on the working group that drafted the Memorandum and insists that it was produced as a guide and not as a strict procedure. “That was never ever intended by Parliament. We have moved so far towards due process, the court system is becoming increasingly concerned about how we do it, not what we do. Children are not getting justice.”

Butler says the problem goes deeper, to the conduct of barristers and judges. In outspoken comments to the Guardian, he said: “The sorts of behaviour that are engaged in by counsel for the defendant would on some occasions by declared oppressive if the police had used the same tactics in interviewing the defendant.

“When video evidence was introduced in 1992, I hoped that judges and barristers would become more familiar with the child witness. Despite some of them being very good, the general experience is that they have failed to achieve a satisfactory level of skill with children. They have no concept of the difference between children of different ages, their idea of time, the nature of their memories. If you look at the transcript of a cross-examination of a child, the pedantic and esoteric language that is used certainly confuses me.”

Any child is likely to find the courts hard to deal with. The special difficulty here is that the damage which is suffered by victims of abuse tends to pitch some of them, as adults, into problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness and mental breakdown, which mean that if ever they have the courage to climb into the witness box to accuse their tormentors, they are particularly unlikely to give compelling evidence. The criticism is that the special difficulties of children are not solved, but exploited by the current system.

In the Westcountry recently, a man was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl with learning difficulties. When she came to give evidence, the man’s barrister began by asking her to count backwards from 20 and then to spell various words. Hampered by her learning problems she made mistakes, lost her confidence and became confused. The man was acquitted. The Chief Constable whose officers had investigated the case is lodging a formal complaint with the Bar Council.

Tony Butler wants child witnesses to be supported by an intermediary who can explain questions and help to sort out an answer in front of the court. “Until we have a satisfactory level of skill among barristers and judges to give justice to children, we have to think very seriously about what is done in other places in the world.”

His biting criticisms are echoed by the 32 specialist officers from ten police forces who took part in the 1995 Home Office inquiry into the policing of abuse. They complained that judges were insensitive; barristers engaged in unfair cross-examination; courtrooms were hostile for the children; and, as a result of the flaws in the system, “very few investigations led to a conviction.”

The inquiry reported: “There was unanimous criticism amongst the ten forces of the criminal justice system for the way it has responded to and processed child sex abuse cases. The entire system was regarded as unsympathetic to the needs and abilities of child victims generally and traumatised children in particular and as a result was regarded as heavily weighted in favour of perpetrators.” It concluded that judges and barristers needed to be trained to specialise in cases of abuse.

These structural weaknesses in the policing and prosecution of child abusers have had an unseen chilling effect on the background activity of social workers. Pauline Colledge, a former social work manager who has spent the last ten years as a child abuse counsellor, has watched social workers react to the blockage in the courts by rationing their own work. Anticipating failure, they have stopped submitting cases and, therefore, stopped sending abused children for medical examination or formal interview or any other kind of investigation. The system is seizing up.

Colledge said: “People are meeting the requirements of the courts rather than the child protection issues. Mainly now, my calls are from people saying ‘We referred it to the social services but we heard nothing from them, they haven’t even interviewed the alleged perpetrator. And they haven’t done a medical.’ Social workers are still battling to protect children but in some cases I’m afraid they’ve given up on prosecution.”

There are some hopeful signs. Customs and Excise have overhauled their whole approach to child abuse. With ministerial support, they have changed their official objectives to allow them to pursue suspects and not simply to seize ‘guilty goods’. With that new policy in place, they have set up specialist units to intercept child pornography at airports, seaports and postal sorting offices; created a national co-ordinator for intelligence on child abuse with a local intelligence specialist in each of their 14 regions; and used this system to detect abusers at the borders and then to work with police to search their homes, uncover their contacts and bring them to court. Their seizures of child pornography have more than doubled in the last two years and they count a senior British diplomat and a child psychiatrist among those who have been prosecuted as a result.

The NSPCC similarly are setting up proactive units to uncover abuse in each of their eight regions. They already have teams in place in London, Wales and the Home Counties. The Crown Prosecution Service have speeded up the processing of child abuse cases and, in most regions, relaxed their controversial advice that no abused child should be allowed to have psychotherapy until they had given evidence at trial.

And despite the general picture of passivity among most police forces, the last five years have seen the belated inquiries into children’s homes, the creation of the proactive Paedophilia Unit at Scotland Yard, and the beginning of a covert intelligence operation which is being run from Bramshill police college to target paedophiles in prison and which is credited with several uncelebrated successes, including saving the life of one child.

Nevertheless, the general picture is one of a ramshackle and neglected system in a state of gross disrepair. For example, there are signs of an alarming scandal waiting to erupt in the fostering of children.

The last twenty years have seen a tidal shift of children away from the big residential homes where so many of them were abused and into foster families. This tide has been moved primarily by cuts in public spending – a foster place costs roughly one seventh of a residential placement. The danger here is that foster families escape almost the entire network of regulation and monitoring.

The gravest danger surrounds private fostering, where the child protection system currently provides an open invitation to abusers to enjoy child sex objects in the privacy of their own home. There is no effective obstacle to prevent anyone who feels like it from setting themselves up as foster parents and avoiding all regulation simply by failing to inform the local authority of what they are doing. Children in these families are, in the words of Sir William Utting’s report last year on children in care, “extremely vulnerable and at very considerable risk of abuse”.

No one even knows how many children are living in these private foster families. Estimates suggest that there may be as many as ten thousand, most of them children from the Third World or Eastern Europe who have been sent to the UK for a better education or to learn the language. In his report, Sir William Utting said: “It appears the numbers may be substantial.” In a horribly revealing aside, he added that among the thousands of African children who have been lodged with private carers in the UK, “it is not unknown for children to be moved without the parents being informed or to ‘disappear’.”

Parallel to this, there is an extraordinary shadowland of unregistered children’s homes which, like private foster families, fall outside most monitoring simply by failing to notify the authorities. Sir William found in 1995 that half the local authorities in the country were using unregistered homes, 14 of them without even knowing it.

Those foster parents who are registered with their local authority are regulated – in theory. However, in practice, according to the National Foster Carers Association, local authorities give them a low priority and few resources and often fail, for example to make unannounced spot-checks or to take children off on their own to give them a chance to talk freely. The fact that some 90% of registered foster parents are unpaid volunteers means local authorities are reluctant to pressurise them for fear of losing them: if carers fail to co-operate with training or assessment, they are highly likely to be left alone.

The child protection system as a whole has been allowed to remain in this state of fundamental weakness largely because the secret character of the crime reduces the pressure on government to repair it. Where there has been political pressure – for example, in relation to the handful of predatory paedophiles who murder their victims – Whitehall has leaped into action. Those who work in the system point with special anger to the long list of official inquiries whose detailed and well-considered advice about the mass of routine undisclosed child abuse has been absorbed by Whitehall – and then ignored.

Six years ago, the Warner Report made 83 clear recommendations to cut abuse in children’s homes, particularly on the vetting of staff. The founder of the Paedophilia Unit at Scotland Yard, Michael Hames, left the police and set up a private agency to implement a new system of vetting. He hired some of the most prestigious experts in child protection, contacted every local authority in the country, offered to filter staff through psychological tests and face-to-face interviews – and went bust within a year after almost every single authority declined to act.

Last year, Norman Warner told a conference on child abuse of his frustration that his 83 recommendations had been welcomed by Whitehall, which had then declined either to put up money to implement them or to monitor them. “Thus we had the situation,” he said, “that when the Prime Minister was wringing his hands over events in North Wales, nobody could say in any detail what had happened to our recommendations. This has been the fundamental problem with the countless inquiries into children’s homes – the lack of follow-through.”

It is two years since the Burgner Report recommended that unregistered foster agencies be brought under the umbrella of regulation. The recommendation was obviously sound. It was widely endorsed. But it was never implemented. Last year, the Utting Report repeated it.

It is nine years since the Pigot Report recommended sweeping changes in the handling of children’s evidence by the courts, crucially that they should never have to appear in court, even on a live video-link, unless they wished to. The Home Office decided to leave the issue to the discretion of judges, who continue routinely to require children to be cross-examined.

It is four years since the Home Affairs Select Committee said that Customs officers must have a new power to punish the electronic import of child pornograpy, via the Internet. The Home Office still has not acted. For that matter, it has not acted even on the advice of its own 1995 inquiry, for example that specialist judges and barristers should be trained to deal with children. Despite advice, there is still no children’s ombudsman, no children’s minister, no national inquiry to look at the links between abusers in children’s homes, no new priority for the policing of paedophilia.

The list of advice which has been ignored is as long as the list of faults in the system. In its major 1996 inquiry, Childhood Matters, the NSPCC concluded that despite the series of scandals and reports, “the abuses that gave rise to those reports persist, largely unaffected by such efforts as have been made to prevent them… The legal system, designed to provide justice and redress for victims of abuse, is failing to do so consistently.”

Almost everyone involved knows that the system is a failure. The Home Office inquiry in 1995 concluded bluntly: “Present arrangements are quite inadequate.” Lady Justice Butler-Sloss, who wrote the report into the Cleveland child abuse scandal, told a conference last year: “There are glaring problems, deficiencies and inadequacies in our present system which cry out to be remedied.” Alan Levy QC, who chaired the inquiry into the ‘pin-down’ scandal in Staffordshire, told a conference in February that Britain’s system is in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children.

The structural failure of the child protection system is obvious not only to all these experts, but also to the estimated two million children in the UK who suffer abuse – to the hundreds of thousands who are raped by their parents or step-parents, to the forty five thousand who live in some kind of care, to the uncounted thousands who work as prostitutes on the streets of British cities, to the thousands of others who have trusted priests or teachers or doctors who then used them as sex aids, and to the families of children like Daniel Handley, out alone in the darkness. And, equally, all this is known in Whitehall.

In Belgium, the families whose children were abducted and murdered by a paedophile ring while the authorities stood flat-footed in the background, quote Einstein: “The world is dangerous to live in not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and let them do so.”