Ten years of abuse - and girls were failed by everyone

THREE girls who were subjected to years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse were failed repeatedly by the social workers whose job it was to protect them, according to a damning report yesterday.

Over a ten-year period, more than 200 separate reports noted concerns over the girls and the systematic abuse they were suffering at the hands of at least four adults, including their father.

Yet, social workers failed to act, choosing instead to try to keep the family together in their squalid home on the Isle of Lewis.

When the girls were finally placed in foster care and their claims properly investigated by police, they were failed again when the Crown Office decided there was not enough evidence to pursue court action their alleged abusers.

Nine people were charged with serious sex offences involving the girls, aged under 16, following statements from them and their mother, but prosecutors decided not to proceed with the case.

Politicians condemned the treatment of the girls and called for lessons to be learned.

The 162-page report on the case from the Social Work Inspection Agency charts the abuse the girls endured over a decade, beginning when one of them was just 14 months old.

"We found evidence of physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, as well as symptoms and behaviour which are strongly suggestive of sexual abuse. We believe that all three children were repeatedly sexually abused," the report concluded.

It described how they were forced to live without proper food, clothing or bedding. One girl routinely slept in a cupboard and another was so hungry she ate cat food, it is claimed.

The abuse began in England, where "family A" came from, and continued when they moved to the Western Isles in 1995.

Between 1990 and 2000, professionals north and south of the Border recorded 222 health concerns and allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse and neglect towards the children. In that time, a total of 29 child protection case conferences were held. The children were eventually placed with foster families in 1998 and 2001, but the report said this should have happened much earlier.

The agency said some of the decisions made were "seriously flawed". It said that, mindful of previous child cases, such as that in Orkney, workers had tried to keep the family together rather than focusing on the needs of the children. It said professionals were too willing to believe the accounts of adult family members rather than the children's.

The report said health workers had failed to spot child protection issues that should have been flagged up by the children's health problems, while the Western Isles NHS board did not have the procedures to support staff in protecting the children.

The education minister, Peter Peacock, demanded action from those responsible for child protection in the Western Isles by 30 November. He said: "This report writes yet another horrifying chapter in the continuing exposure of child abuse in Scotland.

"In this case, the professional agencies involved knew of, and recorded, extensive concerns about the girls' welfare and wellbeing over a number of years, but inspectors found they did not intervene early enough."

Bill Howat, the chief executive of Western Isles Council, said: "We accept that there were serious shortcomings in our performance and that is a matter of regret. Our aim is to provide the best possible children's services in the Western Isles, and we must now see where improvements can be made."

The suspected abusers were picked up in dawn raids on Lewis and in Leicestershire, West Yorkshire and Dorset in October 2003 as part of an investigation codenamed Operation Haven. But the following July, the Crown Office dropped its prosecution before the case got to trial.

Ian Latimer, the Chief Constable of Northern Constabulary, said his force had passed 222,000 pages of documents about the case to the Crown Office, and added: "We had a sufficiency of evidence to charge a number of people, and we did. As in all serious cases, the decision as to whether a criminal prosecution should be undertaken is a matter for the Crown counsel alone."

Alasdair Morrison, the MSP for the Western Isles, said: "It is of deep regret that this was not pursued through the courts and that should alarm every right-thinking citizen. People who were identified were not pursued and justice has not been done.

"Anyone examining all this would be alarmed that there was such a substantial body of evidence and the Crown Office decided not to take it further."

He said he hoped the children would raise a private prosecution against their abusers.

Mr Howat said: "We put in enormous efforts in building up the case work for this, and our staff ... found this harrowing and traumatic. They are naturally very disappointed this did not proceed to prosecution."

The Crown Office said: "Crown counsel concluded that the evidence available did not reach the high standard required for a conviction of individual accused persons before a criminal court."

Some of the accused have always maintained their innocence. One, Peter Nelson, said the claims had destroyed his life. "It's only when it happens to you and you haven't done anything that you wonder how many people are put in jail for crimes they did not commit," he said.

Penny Campbell, wife of another accused, said they had been left angry and bitter. "It has changed for ever the way we look at the authorities," she said.

One was so hungry she ate cat food, one had no shoes, one slept in a cupboard

FILTHY rooms. Starving children. Repeated sexual abuse. The horrific ordeal endured by three young girls was laid out in chilling detail yesterday. One girl was so hungry that she ate cat food and another had no shoes to wear, while one slept in a cupboard, according to social work inspectors.

Physical neglect, which included beds soaked in urine and animals roaming through the house, was compounded by violence and sexual abuse. One girl had a burn thought to have been caused by a cigarette, while another was sexually abused by her stepfather, Mr A, and other men at the house in the Western Isles. A witness said she saw the girls drink goat's milk, which they had strained through a pair of dirty pants.

The report states: "We believe that all three children were repeatedly sexually abused, based on our analysis of all the material we have seen."

The story that has shocked the small island community of Lewis involves three girls who cannot be named, but who were born in 1989, 1991, and 1993.

The older girl was the daughter of Mrs A, who has a learning disability and was herself a victim of physical and sexual abuse. In 1990, Mrs A married Mr A, who was convicted in 1986 of indecent assault against his nine-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Together, they had two more girls.

The oldest girl was put on the child protection register in 1990 when she was just one. Her half-sisters were also later put on the register as being at risk of physical abuse.

The family received almost constant support from social services in England and moved to the Western Isles in 1995.

However, it was found that after the family moved to the Western Isles not all of their records were transferred at the same time. As a result, while Mr A was considered a high risk in England, he was assessed as a low risk in the Western Isles. This was later upgraded.

Investigators believe that had all the records been available to social workers in the Western Isles, an intervention may have come sooner and some abuse could have been prevented.

Mrs A took her oldest child to a GP when she was just 14 months old, worried that she was being sexually abused by her husband. Between October 1990 and November 1991, the girls' nursery recorded 17 occasions when she had a sore genital area or bodily bruising.

Concerns about sexual abuse arose again in 1992, when Mrs A contacted the police. The incidents continued when the family arrived in the Western Isles. In 1996 the girl had a burn thought to have been caused by a cigarette. In 1997, she claimed she was assaulted by her step- father, who was charged, but the case was later dropped. One month later, the girl alleged she was sexually abused.

As a result, the girl was moved to foster parents, where she put on weight and grew by two inches. She returned home later that year, but two months later she again claimed she had been assaulted by her stepfather. In March 1998, she was returned to the foster family, where she remains. Between 1990 and 1998, professionals recorded 46 cases of concern regarding the girl.

The report says concerns about the middle girl increased from 1994 until she, too, was removed from her parents' house. During 1994, she was found to have multiple bruises to her ears, face and shoulder. Over the next few years, social workers reported bruises, weals and burn-like marks on her arm. Burns were also reported in 1997 and 1998.

A home-carer in the Western Isles noted that a number of adults known to Mr and Mrs A visited their home and she said: "To me, it was as if the girls were an exhibition. I just don't like the girls running around half-naked with him [the stepfather] in the house." One adult is said to have admitted to police that he had on a number of occasions touched at least one of the children in an intimate and inappropriate manner.

Later, the report says: "The physical abuse to which the children were subjected may well have been aimed at preventing them from telling about their sexual abuse. In their later disclosures and statements to the police, both the children and their mother described threats and intimidation to keep quiet."

The report described the children's home in Lewis as of a poor standard, one home-carer describing conditions as the worst she had ever seen. In 1999, records show that Mr A was spending 10 a week on a computer while the phone was disconnected for non-payment and the youngest girl had no shoes to wear.

The inspectors said: "We concluded that the children suffered emotional abuse both as a result of the other abuse and neglect they suffered and as a direct result of their parents' failure to consistently meet their emotional needs."

Despite the traumatic lives the girls led, their cries for help went unheeded for some time; inspectors said that professionals, when confronted with conflicting accounts of what happened by adults and children, tended to believe the adults.

The major investigation was sparked off in December 2002, when one of the girls told her foster carer that she had been abused by adults who had visited her parents' home. One girl told police officers of being touched sexually by unrelated men who visited regularly.

Mrs A later denied she knew of any abuse and Mr A, when interviewed by police, denied any knowledge of the allegations.

After discussions between social workers and police, a joint investigation began in January, 2003 and continued until October. It culminated with raids on 3 October at houses in the isles and in England, and initially 13 people were detained.

Nine were later charged with a variety of offences, including rape, but in July last year the Crown Office decided not to take any further proceedings and the case remains closed. However, it is thought the girls, who are receiving legal advice, may make the rare move of using a private prosecution to try to bring the alleged abusers to court.

How the scandal developed

1990: Mr and Mrs A married.

1990: Oldest girl put on child protection register.

1990-1995: English social services convene 12 child protection case conferences.

1995: Family A move to the Western Isles.

1995-2001: Western Isles social services department convenes 17 child protection case conferences.

1997: Oldest child first goes into foster care.

2001: Other children in foster care.

November 2002: One girl makes allegations of abuse.

October 2003: Raids on homes in England and Western Isles - 13 detained, nine later charged.

July 2004: Crown Office drops case.

July 2004: Western Isles Council invites social work inspectors to carry out review of case.