Situation: Denise Acton (not her real name) is a 29-year-old mother
of three. As a young person she proved too troublesome for her
parents – she was often arrested and involved in car stealing and
robbery. She was, in her words, “packed off” to social services.
She was 14 and remained in care until she was 18.
Problem: After reading a report in her local paper that the social
services department was about to have its joint review, Acton
decided she would like to speak to the inspectors. She wanted to
let them know how badly she was treated in the council’s children’s
home she lived in. While acknowledging that some staff were good,
she complained that three staff physically assaulted her. While
being restrained on one occasion, one of them knocked out a tooth
and bruised her eye. She was regularly physically restrained,
locked in her room and threatened with violence if she did not do
as she was told. She did not complain at the time for fear of
retribution, and who would believe her – a “no-good girl” – anyway?
The home – then run by a county council rather than the unitary
authority that has since replaced it – closed eight years ago. None
of the staff now work for social services. Her social work file is
incomplete and her children’s home file cannot be found – seemingly
lost in the transfer of councils. It seems it all happened too long
ago and nobody can do anything. panel responses
It may not be strictly true that there is nothing that can
be done about this situation. However, given the circumstances and
timescales involved, it may be difficult. But that is no reason not
to try to get to the bottom of what happened to Denise while she
was in the care of the local authority.
My understanding is that she would still have recourse within the
law. Police will still investigate claims of abuse to children,
even when they are adults, particularly the incident where she
reports that she was physically restrained to such an extent that
she had a tooth knocked out and her eye bruised. There may be
medical records if she ever attended medical services for any of
Also, if this happened to her, it may well have happened to other
children at the home, or they may have witnessed things that
happened to her. She may also have had friends whom she told of the
assaults or who witnessed the injuries.
Of course, having available records would help, but if she were to
report it to the police they might consider taking it further. This
would not necessarily lead to a successful prosecution, and this
would need to be explained to Denise. But it may be that she would
find the process therapeutic in some way, in that she was being
given the opportunity to tell people what had happened and perhaps
not be so frightened that she would not be believed.
A great deal would depend on what Denise wanted done about it;
whether she wanted to make a complaint to police or whether she
merely wanted to have some acknowledgement from the social services
department about what she went through while in its care. She
should have the same rights as anyone who has been involved with
social services to put in an official complaint if she wished and
at least receive an acknowledgement and response to her
Her claims should be investigated further, in any case, given that
the members of staff against whom she is making the allegations may
not be working for the same social services department, but may
still be working with children somewhere else, and may be being
abusive to them.
Although it happened a long time ago and the children’s
home has now closed, the present local authority still has a
commitment to listen to Denise, to look into the events of what
happened and to see whether any lessons can be learned to ensure it
could not happen again.
It would appear that Denise has had a very poor experience of
living in a children’s home and there are several options open to
- Denise may be willing to leave it to the social services
department to carry out an internal investigation. Although the
staff no longer work for social services, they may still be working
with children so it is important to find out whether a criminal
offence was committed.
- She may make a formal complaint, which will be investigated
internally but with an accompanying independent person. She could
ask for the investigator to be independent of the authority.
- As with any investigation involving allegations of a criminal
offence, the police should be informed from the start. Whether
criminal proceedings could be brought would obviously depend on the
evidence that emerged. If the staff were found guilty, they may be
placed on the Department of Health consultancy list to prevent them
working with children in the future.
- Denise may seek legal advice or pursue a claim for
- She can also apply to see her records under the Data Protection
Act 1998. Although it appears that social services failed her by
losing some of her records (other records are incomplete) she may
find it helpful to go through the records that are available, with
the support of a social worker, to correct any mistakes. She would
have the opportunity for her account of events to be added to her
- Denise could be supported further through counselling.
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, it is important to
see whether any lessons can be learned. Perhaps Denise would be
willing to become involved in shaping future children’s policies,
either locally through a young people’s support group, or
nationally through the Who Cares? Trust, where she would have the
opportunity to be active in improving services for young people in
This tale has a familiar ring, writes Peter Saunders. Denise was
abused in care but she now has a chance to do something about it.
She has a right to be heard and believed. That is very important if
she is to move on and she may well still be affected by her
experiences. The fact that she was a tearaway in her youth gave no
one the right to beat her.
Her records are missing. They will be somewhere and someone should
take the responsibility to find them. The fact that none of the
staff now work for social services does not mean they are still not
working with children or vulnerable adults. Denise is only 29. It
is not that long since these incidents took place and the abusers
could easily be working somewhere else. They should be traced.
Denise remembers the “good staff”. They should also be traced and
questioned. Denise and the “good staff” may benefit from a meeting.
They may deserve a thank-you, but it is conspiracies of silence
that often allow abuse to go unchecked.
“Nobody can do anything” is just not good enough. With the will a
lot can be done. Denise may benefit from counselling. Abuse often
leaves deep, indelible scars and if people are not supported and
helped to put the past behind them they may never move on. Worse
still, they may perpetuate the violence they “learned” as a child.
Denise has three children. They also need to be considered.
Sometimes people who are abused experience parenting difficulties –
who doesn’t? – but she may need extra support. To ignore Denise now
is tantamount to re-abusing her because, instead of feeling
empowered, she may feel oppressed and worthless – as she did when
The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac)
hears from many people who were abused as children. The
consequences are far-reaching, for the victim and for society. Many
social problems have their roots in child abuse.
We cannot turn back the clock and we cannot take away the abuse
Denise suffered but she can still get justice. Unfortunately, if
she is not heard and believed she may have to seek an alternative
route. She may pursue a civil action against the authorities and
may then be accused, as many former victims of abuse are, of only
doing it “for the money”. In the six years at Napac not once have I
heard an abuse survivor mention money. All they want is to heal
from the painful memories.
Peter Saunders is founder and development manager of Napac.
He is a survivor of child abuse.