Uncovering The Past Abuse of Children in Care

During the 1990s and into the 21st century, the problem of the widespread abuse of children in care has been increasingly recognised. There were many investigations and reports into such abuse in the UK. The same occurred in a number of other countries (such as Ireland, Canada and Australia).

This section of our website is dedicated to highlighting this problem. Although it focuses on what we know about abuse in the past, we also know that abuse continues to occur. Cases are regularly reported in newspapers and on radio and television. We want to make sure that governments and professionals deal with this problem properly. We also want to support those courageous care leavers and professionals who seek to expose such abuse.

We disagree with those who have claimed that the investigations and court cases of the past 15 years have been a witch-hunt and have exaggerated the problem. On the contrary, our members know that much of the abuse that went on in the past was never uncovered and has never been dealt with. Many of us have directly experienced or witnessed physical or sexual abuse that was never brought to light.

Throughout history, the possibility of abuse (whether physical or sexual) within the child care system has often  been ignored. For example, outbreaks of venereal diseases in children’s homes in the early part of the twentieth century were usually explained away as the result of ‘innocent’ transmission through shared towels, toilet seats, etc. (see Carol Smart’s article).

It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that we saw wide acceptance of the existence of such abuse. As the Police Complaints Authority investigation into the Leicestershire child abuse cases noted: “…even today it is beyond the comprehension of most people that a parent might physically or sexually abuse a child. It is even more unthinkable that this could happen to children under professional care”.

The Abuse of Looked After Children: Developments in the 1990s

There is now overwhelming evidence of widespread abuse during past decades that went largely unpunished and largely unnoticed outside the care system. A wide range of professionals and responsible adults refused to believe complaints made by children and by other adults. Reading through the relevant inquiry reports provides graphic evidence of the scale of suffering involved. The three most important reports are the ‘Pindown’ inquiry by Alan Levy and Barbara Kahan, (1991), the Leicestershire inquiry (1993) and the inquiry into abuse in children’s homes in North Wales (known as the Waterhouse Report, 2000).


A total of at least 132 children, aged nine and upwards, experienced what came to be called ‘pindown’ in a number of Leicestershire children’s homes between 1983 and 1989. ‘Pindown’ was little short of a system of solitary confinement for large periods of time. It varied in length but did last, in one instance, up to 84 continuous days. It was punishment for such activities as running away from care or school, petty theft, bullying and threats of violence. It exhibited “the worst elements of institutional control: baths on admission, special clothing, strict routine, segregation and isolation, humiliation, and inappropriate bed times” (Levy and Kahan, 1991: 167). The social workers involved even wrote down, in detail, how their system operated. When you read through the report, it becomes clear that the ringleaders were clearly proud of what they were doing.


This inquiry looked at high levels of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in a number of Leicestershire children’s homes between 1973 and 1986. These were homes run by Frank Beck, but Beck was not the only person convicted. At his trial in 1991, Beck was found guilty of 17 counts of physical and sexual abuse. In a parallel Police Complaints Authority investigation into why so many of the complaints made to police by children had been badly dealt with, the police admit that the central problem for these children was “that they considered the police officers who dealt with them did not believe their stories. They were justified in that suspicion. To most of the police officers who dealt with them, they were no more than juvenile criminals who habitually told lies.”

North Wales

This inquiry looked at abuse within children’s homes in North Wales between 1974 and 1996. This was by far the biggest of the abuse scandals, with fifteen individuals convicted of offences. The investigation received evidence from 259 complainants and concluded that “Widespread sexual abuse of boys occurred in children’s residential establishments in Clwyd between 1974 and 1990” (page 197). In the neighbouring county of Gwynedd, the level of abuse was lower and was mainly physical.

The Government Response

The Conservative government in the 1990s said that the reforms introduced by the 1989 Children Act would help to prevent such widespread abuse in the future. However, Waterhouse and other enquiries showed that the 1989 Act was not enough. Also, the focus of the 1989 Children Act on the rights of children had died down by the mid-1990s. Many residential social workers and others talked about the ‘excessive’ powers that the Act had given to young people.

Concern with child abuse in the care system in North Wales grew gradually and Welsh Secretary William Hague set up a judicial inquiry in 1996. He also set up a review of the safeguards for children living away from home in England and Wales. This led to the 1997 Utting Report. There were numerous other investigations already being conducted by the police. By February 2000, as many as 32 separate investigations into abuse were underway in England and Wales.

The main parliamentary debate on the Waterhouse Report took place in March 2000. It is striking no one raised concerns about false allegations of abuse. Indeed, the most common concern is that the abuse uncovered represents the tip of an iceberg. Even as late as December 2001, only a few questions relating to ‘Operation Care’ from Claire-Curtis Thomas MP (from Merseyside) gave a hint of the backlash against the abuse investigations that is now underway.  

Given the widespread revulsion expressed by MPs whilst debating the North Wales abuse cases, the establishment of a Home Affairs Select Committee investigation “into the conduct of investigations of past cases of abuse in children’s homes” was a surprise. It resulted from behind the scenes lobbying by supporters of alleged victims of miscarriages of justice. The committee, focused on these alleged victims, seemed relatively unconcerned with the problems of a justice system that could allow widespread abuse to continue for so long. This is clear from the Committee’s terms of reference:

The Committee will not investigate individual cases, some of which may still be subject of legal proceedings, but it will address the following issues:

1.    Do police methods of ‘trawling’ for evidence involve a disproportionate use of resources and produce unreliable evidence for prosecution
2.    Is the Crown Prosecution Service drawing a sensible line about which cases should be prosecuted?
3.    Should there be a time limit-in terms of number of years since the alleged offence took place-on prosecution of cases of child abuse?
4.    Is there a risk that the advertisement of prospective awards of compensation in child abuse cases encourages people to come forward with fabricated allegations?
5.    Is there a weakness in the current law on “similar fact” evidence?

Committee chairman, Chris Mullin MP, confirmed that his priority was accused professionals, even while trying to reassure the victims of abuse:

This inquiry raises difficult and sensitive issues. It has been suggested that a whole new genre of miscarriages of justice has arisen from the over-enthusiastic pursuit of allegations about abuse of children in institutions many years ago. The decision to conduct this inquiry was taken in response to a large number of well-argued representations received by the Committee. We shall be looking at the methods by which convictions have been achieved and whether there are adequate safeguards. We shall bear in mind, however, that people convicted of sexually abusing children are more likely to continue protesting their innocence than any other category of prisoner.

If one reads the report, it is clear from the tone of the questioning of various witnesses to the committee where its priorities lay. Witnesses representing abuse victims were repeatedly questioned about the role of compensation in generating false claims, the potential for ‘false memories’ and the validity and dangers of police ‘trawling’ for witnesses and survivors.

Given the scale of hidden abuse revealed by the inquiries, the priorities of the committee are questionable. No one wants to see falsely accused people put in prison. However, we already know from the inquiry reports that hundreds of children, at the very least, had been seriously abused in the care system and that this had been hidden for, in many cases, decades. Wouldn’t the committee have made a much better use of its time trying to understand why police and professionals had failed to protect so many young people from such crimes over such a long period? Throughout the Waterhouse investigation, members of parliament from all parties had been willing to accept, in the words of Roger Sims, a senior Conservative backbencher:

That the abuse of children in institutions is a widespread and continuing problem…while inquiries and reports are necessary, it is essential that, thereafter, measures should be implemented to ensure the prevention of further abuse. (House of Commons Debates, 17.6.1996, col.525).

However, in this case the Home Affairs Select Committee was responding to pressures from groups that represent professionals. The inequality between such groups and their often isolated and damaged former clients is obvious. Care leavers often lack the networks, resources and influence to challenge such professionals. It was reassuring, therefore, that the government’s response to the report of the Home Affairs Select committee roundly rejected most of its recommendations and supported the conduct of the police investigations into past abuse. For example, the government response into the Committee’s activities stated that the government “does not share its believe in the existence of large numbers of miscarriages of justice”. It also noted that “the weight given by the Committee to the views of those who believe in miscarriages of justice, including those who claim to be the victims themselves of such cases, is disproportionate”. The government reply is also highly critical of most of the rest of the Committee’s approach.

Moreover, the police have always robustly defended their investigation techniques in this area and their view that there was, indeed, widespread abuse in the care system of the past. As a group of professionals who are used to sniffing out false accusations, one would have thought that their views should carry more weight with some of the critics of past abuse claims. The idea that significant numbers of care leavers have managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the police, prosecutors, judges and juries is simply not credible.

Further Reading

Corby, B, Doig, A and Roberts, V (2001), Public Inquiries into Abuse of Children in Residential Care. Jessica Kingsley: London.

Home Affairs Committee, Press Notice No.9: ‘Home Affairs Committee Launches Inquiry into the Conduct of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse in Children’s Homes’, 16th January 2002. House of Commons: London.

Home Affairs Committee, 2002b: Oral Evidence, uncorrected transcript, 25th June 2002.

Home Office (Secretary of State) (2003), The Conduction of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse in Children’s Homes (The Government Reply to the Fourth Report from the Home Affairs Committee) (Cm 5799), Norwich: The Stationery Office.

House of Commons Debates (17.3.200), Vol.346, cols 623-691.

Kirkwood, A (1993), The Leicestershire Inquiry 1992. Leicestershire County Council: Leicester.

Levy, A and Kahan, B (1991), The Pindown Experience and the Protection of Children. Staffordshire County Council.

Police Complaints Authority (1993), Inquiry into Police Investigation of Complaints of Child and Sexual Abuse in Leicestershire Children’s Homes: A Summary. Police Complaints Authority: London.

Smart, C (2000), ‘Reconsidering the Recent History of Child Sexual Abuse, 1910-1960’, Journal of Social Policy, 29 (1): 55-71.

Waterhouse, R (2000), Lost in Care: Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the abuse of Children in Care in the former county council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974. (HC 201). The Stationery Office: London.