Council pays £1m damages for ‘shocking’ child abuse failings

Essex council has paid damages of almost £1m to four siblings it failed to protect from years of parental abuse, Community Care has learned. (Pic: posed by model, Nigel R. Barklie/Rex Features)

Essex council has paid damages of almost £1m to four siblings it failed to protect from years of parental abuse, Community Care has learned.

See a timeline of the key events in the case and access an invaluable series of Inform good practice guides relevant to the case

The landmark settlement – thought to be one of the largest of its kind – was agreed in 2011 following almost a decade of work by lawyers.

The “shocking” case involved a catalogue of errors by Essex council, which failed to protect the siblings after learning their father had a previous conviction for sexually abusing his two young children from an earlier marriage.

Ed Mitchell, a solicitor who specialises in social care law and Inform board member, said the settlement was “certainly the largest compensation award against a council for failing to protect vulnerable children I have ever come across”.

Essex council first became involved with the family in August 1990 when a neighbour reported the eldest child complaining that her father had been “bonking” her.

A child protection investigation followed, which uncovered the father’s conviction. But he was allowed to continue to have regular contact with his children.

Social workers agreed he would move out of the family home but would have contact supervised by his wife, the children’s mother. He continued to abuse his children during this period.

Multiple failings

Patrick Ayre, a social work expert who produced a report for the case, said the children’s mother should never have been approved to supervise contact. The council’s decision to approve her showed appropriate risk assessments had not been conducted, he added.

“The children’s mother had been with their father during his previous trial and conviction. She did not believe his conviction so did not accept that he posed a risk to his children. She could therefore not be expected to supervise contact properly,” Ayre – the Inform board member – told Community Care.

Essex council did not conduct a risk assessment on the siblings’ father until June 1994, according to its records. When it was completed, in 1996, it concluded that he posed a high risk of reoffending and his children should be protected from him. A comprehensive assessment of the family circumstances was not finished until May 1996.

In a statement, jointly signed by Ayre and a social work expert instructed by Essex council, it was agreed that the authority should have ensured that all contact between the father and his children was supervised by a social worker and initiated a comprehensive family assessment, “as it was expected to do in line with the standards of the times”.

The authority should also have initiated care proceedings at an early date and implemented an effective plan to address the children’s vulnerability arising from their mother’s parenting inadequacies, they said.

Legal action

The failings first came to light in 2002 when Southend-on-Sea council took over from Essex as the unitary authority and alerted the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS), which took up the case on behalf of the children.

Thea Henley, the solicitor appointed by NAYS to represent the four siblings, said the case was one of the worst she had ever worked on, describing it as “absolutely shocking, and important”.

“I am pleased Essex council has agreed to pay damages, but it is not the end of the story. The children were abused from birth and the impact of this, emotionally and psychologically, is enormous. Essex council failed to protect them, despite clear evidence that their father posed a huge risk to their safety. This enabled him to continue to abuse his children,” she added.

A spokesperson for Essex council said the authority could not comment on an individual case, but added: “In recent years we have made significant improvements in our children’s services and we are committed to continue to do this.”

More information

See a timeline of the key events in the case and access an invaluable series of Inform good practice guides relevant to the case.

Councils face ‘hidden army’ of child abuse damage claimants

Landmark £1m child abuse settlement sober reminder for all social workers

Inform expert guides include:

Guide to an initial pre-assessment of an adult who has committed sexual abuse

Parenting assessment reference manual

Guide to managing risk in social work

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