Submitted by Devon County Council Social Services Department (CA 88)
Devon County Council in conjunction with the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, initiated a major investigation into historical abuse in Children's homes in 1997. Initially, this investigation was established to investigate a number of allegations of abuse by former residents of an Approved School which had been situated in Devon. The investigation was later expanded to cover a number of historical allegations of abuse in a variety of residential establishments across the whole of the south west peninsular.
Operation Lentisk has now investigated complaints concerning 36 residential children's establishments. The complaints cover a period from 1960 up until 1985. To-date, there have been 37 established complaints and 19 which are still subject to review. The complaints are identified as 149 alleged offenders, of these 29 are now known to be deceased, 34 are currently subject toNo Further Action, and 12 have been Charged. Of these, four have now gone to trial, two of the offenders were sentenced to 18 years and 15 years imprisonment for a variety of sexual offences. One offender has been found 'not guilty' on 18 charges but awaits a re-trial for a remaining 10 further offences of a sexual nature. A fourth alleged perpetrator has been found "not guilty" on the direction of the Judge.
Although the size and scope of Operation Lentisk has now been reduced, it is anticipated that the investigation will continue to run until at least the end of March 2003.
In relation to the specific questions posed by your Committee I would make the following comments.
1. Do Police methods of "trawling" for evidence involve a disproportionate use of resources and produce unreliable evidence for prosecution?
The identification and location of past residents of the various residential establishments does require significant resource input particularly from the Social Services Liaison Officers seconded to this investigation. The major role of these Liaison Officers is to locate and scrutinise files that would have been kept either by the residential establishment itself or the placing local authority. However, it was deemed necessary where allegations had been made against staff members of a particular establishment, to ascertain whether other residents might now wish to come forward to make complaints. This seemed particularly appropriate given the understandings in relation to sexual abuse where it is known that the victim is often extremely reluctant to disclose past abuse but may then do so, if they become aware that other residents are alleging similar experiences. There is no indication from Operation Lentisk that this has produced unreliable evidence for the prosecution of offenders.
2. Is the Crown Prosecution Service drawing a sensible line about which cases should be prosecuted?
In relation to Operation Lentisk the answer to this is "Yes". The Crown Prosecution Service are taking a responsible and balanced view about which cases should be prosecuted based upon the weight of evidence and also the advisability of criminal prosecution given the seriousness of the allegation, the age of the alleged perpetrator and the continuing risk that they may pose to other children and young people.
3. Is there a risk that the advertisement of prospective awards for compensation in child abuse cases encourages people to come forward with fabricated allegations?
Operation Lentisk has resulted in a number of Civil claims by complainants and settlements have now been reached ranging from £2,500 up to £70,000. There is always a danger that the prospects of obtaining significant financial compensation will produce false claims. To-date, Operation Lentisk is aware of one attempt to falsely allege abuse and thereby claim compensation. On this occasion the complainant was discovered and successfully prosecuted for an offence of Perverting the Course of Justice.
4. Is there a weakness in the current law on "similar fact" evidence?
The two successful criminal prosecutions arising out of Operation Lentisk have been based upon "similar fact" evidence. Whilst it would be better to obtain convictions on evidence that was fully corroborated, clearly given the nature of child sexual abuse, this is often not available. Where there is however, very clear and strong evidence of "similar fact" based upon the modus operandi of the alleged perpetrator and the number and consistency of allegations being made against them, then it does seem that this is an appropriate basis on which to obtain a conviction. Difficulties have been encountered in prosecutions, where defence barristers have attempted, (in some cases successfully) to discredit a witness on the basis of their behaviour which initially caused them to be admitted to a child care establishment. For example, juvenile offenders who had been admitted to a former Approved School, were then made out to be generally unreliable in alleging sexual abuse.
5. Should there be a limitin terms of number of years since the alleged offence took placeon prosecution of cases of child abuse?
There should be no set limit. Each case should be judged on it's merits with particular attention being paid to the seriousness of the allegations and whether the alleged perpetrator may still pose a threat to children, particularly by still being employed in residential child care.
The role and contribution of the Social Services Department in this major investigation has been significant. Devon County Council have taken the major part in working jointly with the police, given that the operation initially arose from allegations made about a former Devon establishment. However, once the scope of the investigation was widened to cover the neighbouring authorities of Torbay, Plymouth and Cornwall, some contribution in terms of Social Services staff time has also been made by these authorities. The involvement of Social Services Departments in this type of investigation is crucial, particularly with regard to facilitating access to local authority and residential files and then ensuring that formal disclosure to the police of appropriate information is carried out in accordance with the law and best possible practice.
The resource implications for the Social Services Department in relation to this major investigation have therefore been significant, particularly at a time when all local authorities are struggling in relation to the resourcing of their core services to children and families.