Staffordshire police have recently concluded a major
investigation into historical concerns of child abuse in a range of
organisational settings. Some would attribute the success of the
investigation by the police and social services of both
Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent councils to the “bread and butter”
of interagency collaboration in safeguarding children’s
It was not as simple as that. However one measures success – and
police officers rely heavily upon the outcome of criminal trials –
triumphing over disaster represents an enduring hallmark for how
well agencies work together in the unforgiving world of child
maltreatment. While it is not uncommon for councils to carry out
investigations into abuse concerns, when encountered upon such a
large scale (more than 1,200 “complaints”), it required a
re-evaluation of organisational mechanisms.(1)
Operation Thor started in 1999 and ran for six years. Staffordshire
joined 30 other police forces which were engaged in major complex
abuse inquiries. Most centred upon historical concerns arising from
people’s experience of their time in children’s residential
Operation Thor began when two adults came forward to complain about
their treatment as children in care, and rapidly expanded in the
wake of more concerns that covered a period of nearly 30 years. At
its height, 22 police officers worked on the operation.
Social workers were seconded to the team to help police officers
understand long-since abandoned child care systems. This, however,
exposed some critical differences. The police are experienced in
establishing fully functioning incident rooms virtually overnight.
But for social services departments, the prospect of deploying
staff away from the front-line of children’s services – to work
with and on behalf of adults – took longer to resolve.
Another challenge was the scale of the inquiry itself. It
corresponded with experiences in other local authorities at that
time, such as Greater Manchester(3) and the impact upon interagency
working was considerable.
These unanticipated complexities required innovation and commitment
from councils that were effectively required to bare their souls.
These had to be addressed in the absence of statutory guidance,
which came three years later(4), along with much relief in finding
that Operation Thor’s internal structures had been so prominently
Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent each pooled modest resources in
assembling a team of less than three full-time practitioners and
one manager to support this police-led inquiry. Requiring social
workers to work closely with, and yet independently from, police
officers in police stations, was by no means straightforward.
Middle managers from each of the two local authorities, who
effectively took responsibility for this collaboration, had to be
persuaded of the importance of deploying staff to work in subtly
different ways. For example, social workers’ interpretation of
archived material, including case files, helped place complaints
into meaningful organisational contexts.
Social workers also supported the alleged victims of abuse. But
even this more familiar aspect of social work might not have
prepared workers for the effects of chronic distress on the lives
of some individuals. The harrowing nature of recurring negative
experiences surrounding separation and loss, reinforced by being
away from home, was an enduring burden.
A feature of Operation Thor’s success was its investigations into a
range of community settings. They included private and public
organisations providing educational and leisure services more
recently. This initially required the short-term secondment to the
team of staff trained in video-interviewing techniques, before
responsibility for investigating contemporary concerns reverted to
local child protection teams.
In all of these arrangements, the role of the team manager was key
as the manager became the broker between the various agencies
involved at strategic and operational levels. Innovation though, in
being prepared to work “outside the box”, had to be tempered by
legal and ethical controls. Protocols governing information
exchange and victim support had to be strong enough to withstand
legal challenge in keeping personal information secure and in
maintaining the separate integrity of the social work role.
While everyone who came forward to make a complaint was advised
about the Victim Support service, police officers took on the
responsibility for negotiating targeted support from the social
workers attached to the team. The social workers also obtained a
range of support services for up to 50 individuals. While this
included direct work, it also recognised that for some individuals
social work may not have provided the most welcome solution, and
that for others, very different professional expertise was
Barriers to disclosure and intervention are well-rehearsed in the
literature, particularly on behalf of males.(5) New policies on
safeguarding children and promoting their welfare incorporate an
understanding of the key factors that pre-dispose someone to
abusive experiences such as location, having to “earn” home leave
and having only irregular contact with social workers and extended
Only by understanding lessons can such large-scale deployment of
resources be justified. While some might judge Thor’s success in
terms of criminal trials – 14 with nine convictions and five
acquittals – more holistic views would consider trials to be just
one aspect of achievement. Much was learned from the management of
complex investigations, in recognising the merits of
jointly-managed arrangements at a senior or executive level in what
remained a police-led operation.
Regular meetings of the senior management team successfully
* Risk management strategies on behalf of alleged offenders.
* Human resource implications of those in positions of trust who
came under suspicion.
* Safeguarding children, as appropriate.
* Media strategies.
* Administrative and staffing arrangements.
In hindsight, more might have been done to establish the executive
management team from the outset. In planning resources, early
priorities should be given to administrative support and
locally-managed arrangements enabling flexible access to support
for alleged victims.
While history might have a habit of repeating itself, the passage
of time that has elapsed since the period upon which Thor focused
has seen significant developments in children’s services. Public
care is organised differently, safeguards for children away from
home are much better understood and in the vetting, recruitment and
retention of staff, the government’s workforce reforms promise
safety for future generations.
Greg Williams is a principal child care manager with
Staffordshire Council with more then 27 years’ experience as a
social work manager. He is responsible for strategic child
protection arrangements, including co-ordinating the area child
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to
guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl
and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on
a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a
service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered
In reflecting upon their contribution towards the success
of a major police inquiry, social workers in Staffordshire and
Stoke-on-Trent consider some of the challenges that had to be
overcome. While working alongside police officers may have become
commonplace in certain aspects of current practice, managing
complex investigations requires very different planning and the
deployment of dedicated resources.
(1) Barton A, Welbourne P, Context and its significance in
what works in child protection, Child Abuse Review, Vol 14
(pp 177-194), 2005
(2) Waterhouse R, Lost in Care, Stationery Office,
(3) Gallagher B, The Abuse of Children in Public Care, Child
Abuse Review, Vol 8 (357-365), 1999
(4) Home Office, Complex Child Abuse Investigations –
Inter-agency Issues, Stationery Office, 2002
(5) Etherington K, Adult Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual
Abuse, Pitman, 1995; and Lindsay N, The Neglected Priority,
Child Abuse Review, Vol 8 (405-418), 1999
(6) DfES, Every Child Matters: Change for Children’s Outcomes
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