Britain Grapples With Disturbing Abuse Cases
LONDON — In one case, a 56-year-old unemployed businessman from Sheffield was convicted of terrorizing and repeatedly raping — and fathering nine children with — his two daughters over nearly three decades. In the other, a 27-year-old woman from London and two other people were convicted of inflicting a barrage of injuries on her 17-month-old son and finally battering him to death.
The two cases, which have both come to light in the last few weeks, have horrified the British public and raised disturbing questions about the effectiveness of Britain’s vast social-service system. Both families had repeated contact with an army of social workers, doctors, hospital workers and police officers, and both families were left intact despite troubling, even blatant, evidence of severe mistreatment.
Why, people are wondering, did they fail to intervene when the warning signs seemed so obvious?
“People will want to know how such abuse could go on for so long without the authorities and the wider public services discovering it and taking action,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in Parliament this week, speaking of the case where the women were abused. “If there is a change to be made in the system and the system has failed, we will change the system.”
At the same time, the cases also shed light on the difficulties in a system that, critics say, is severely understaffed and overly bureaucratic. Speaking of the case of the toddler, Ian Johnston, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, cautioned that the government should not “look for scapegoats.”
Instead, he said, the investigation should focus on “crucial issues around the high turnover of staff in child protection social work, excessive caseloads, over-reliance on agency workers, an absence of supervision for often inexperienced or nonpermanent workers and a systemic obsession with inputting information into a database at the expense of time spent with children at risk.”
British law places severe restrictions on the release and reporting of details in family law cases. As a result, details are much harder to come by than those in the case, say, of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who kept his daughter locked in a cellar for 24 years, fathering her seven children.
But testimony in both trials has laid bare not just horrible abuse but a seemingly wholesale breakdown in the safety net meant to protect vulnerable children.
The public first heard about the case of 17-month-old Baby P., as he has been identified by the court, when his mother, her boyfriend and a tenant in their house in Haringey, north London, went on trial this month for his murder. It emerged that Baby P. had had contact with social workers, doctors, the police and child welfare agencies at least 60 times in an eight-month period in which he suffered at least 50 injuries. He had been placed on a register meant to monitor high-risk cases.
Baby P.’s mother was detained and questioned several times by the police after doctors found suspicious bruises, swellings and scratches on his body. Once, it emerged, she had fooled a visiting social worker by obscuring Baby P.’s injuries with chocolate.
At one point, a social worker recommended that he be placed in foster care. But British family law holds that every effort should be made to place children with friends or relatives, and Baby P. was sent to stay with a family friend for five weeks, only to return home.
He was found dead in his blood-stained crib in August 2007. A pathologist who examined him afterward found that his back and eight ribs were broken, that he had a swallowed a tooth after being violently hit on the head and that some of his fingernails were missing. The pathologist said he had never seen such damage done to a child.
The other case came to light when the two women complained formally in June after nearly 30 years of abuse. They said that their father began beating, raping and menacing them when they were children. Abandoned by their mother, who had also been abused, they later became pregnant time and time again, 19 times in all. Sometimes they miscarried; sometimes they aborted the babies after abnormalities were discovered in prenatal tests. Two babies died at birth.
The father was able to keep the abuse a secret by moving frequently in South Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, settling in remote villages and limiting contact with outsiders. He beat the women with his hands, his feet and a belt, and burned his younger daughter, the women said. He warned that if they went to the police, they would lose their children.
There were signs that the women, or other family members, sought help from time to time. Their older brother, who left home when he was 15, reported his father to the police, but the women denied that he was their children’s father, the authorities said. When the question of paternity was raised by doctors, they also claimed that the father was someone else.
The judge in the trial, Alan Goldsack, told the court it was the worst case he had seen in 40 years of criminal law. “Questions will inevitably be asked about what professionals, social and medical workers have been doing for the last 20 years,” he said.