Dr Liz Davies, Reader in Child Protection (Emeritus) at the London Metropolitan University, explains what has been happening regarding the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was set up by the then Home Secretary over two years ago. It was launched following pressure from survivors of organised and institutional abuse who spoke out in their thousands following the exposure of ‘people of public prominence’ involved in vast child abuse networks.
They are not a unified group – why would or should they be? They gained voice through the effective use of social media and brought over 150 MP’s on board to support the demands of seven cross-party MPs for an independent inquiry. The aim of the inquiry was to work closely with ‘victims’ to investigate the failures of police and other authorities to investigate historical cases of child sexual abuse and to examine the reasons for the stalling or abandonment of past investigations and disappearance of documentation.
IICSA was initially subjected to significant challenge by survivors who went on to achieve the removal of the first two chairs. They also questioned the structure of the inquiry and terms of reference. In response to much outcry, the Inquiry became statutory in 2015 with increased powers to take testimony and examine documentation. The period under review was extended from 1970 back to 1945, in response to survivors of the Home Office run Approved School system. Justice Lowell Goddard became the new chair and appointed a panel of four professionals, to the exclusion of survivors. Instead, an eight-person Victim and Survivor Consultation Panel, with very limited powers, was established to advise the Inquiry – a move some survivors saw as a tokenistic response.
Survivors wanted justice
Notably, the WhiteFlowers Campaign, a network of survivor groups, whistle-blowers and supporters, held two unprecedented meetings at the House of Commons where survivor after survivor spoke about their experiences, clearly informing politicians and the media of their views.
Concern was expressed about the lack of an investigator on the panel such as a former police officer. Some were unhappy that the focus was child sexual abuse as they were victims of torture, neglect, emotional and physical harm. Others expressed concern at the remit being unviable as it was too wide including abuse within the family instead of the original intended focus on networks of institutional and organised abuse.
Survivors wanted justice including the conviction of known abusers and could not see how the inquiry could lead to this with no investigative role other than that of examining past agency responses to allegations. They highlighted the Cleveland Inquiry in 1987 which had examined the arrangements for child protection but had not included whether or not the abuse took place.
The statutory inquiry was set up with three strands: The Truth Project, Investigations and Research. Survivors expressed concern at the Truth Project having no parallel police/multi-agency investigation team to bring child sex abusers to justice or to ensure the protection of children currently considered at risk. IICSA refers appropriate cases to Operation Hydrant, a police coordinating team which refers on to the relevant local police force - or sometimes to the Police Standards Department. This approach risks being a merry-go-round leading to referral to the very teams that may have held responsibility for addressing the abuse allegations in the first place. The survivor’s accounts presented to the Truth Project will be anonymised and included in research although there is already much research available. In over a year, just about 100 survivors have presented in person to the project.
Delays, resignations, change of chairs all became too much
The Investigations include 13 specific cases. There have been some preliminary hearings but the full hearings are not expected to be heard before 2017 – an incredibly long wait since the 2014 launch. Some survivors have challenged the role of the Home Office because many IICSA employees were formerly employed by that Department and they would prefer more independent staff to have been appointed. Concerned about a possible conflict of interest, survivors are asking for a full breakdown of the former responsibilities of the Home Office in provision of child care, appointing the superintendents of children’s establishments and inspection.
A meeting of the Home Affairs Select Committee held on the 20th October drew responses from the chair and two panel members, demonstrating how serious dysfunction within the inquiry had been reported but not declared or addressed over some months. A survivor began to shout out during the meeting and was removed from the hearing. Delays, resignations, employee concerns, changes of chairs and inquiry structures and the lack of survivor contribution, had proved too much for him to cope with. Whilst acknowledging that such important parliamentary processes need protecting from disruption, it was sad that support plans were not in place to enable full participation of survivors at a public hearing about the inquiry.
Questions are also being raised about the role of the new chair Professor Alexis Jay who was appointed following the resignation of Justice Lowell Goddard after 16 months chairing the IICSA (in her resignation letter she cited matters including being away from her family in New Zealand and referred to the “legacy of failure which has been very hard to shake off”). Professor Jay conducted the inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham and published the subsequent report in August 2014. However, as a social worker she does not have a legal background. Those abused or failed by social workers say they now find it difficult to engage with the process and others have suggested splitting the inquiry into themes each with three chairs from different backgrounds and including a lawyer. Alexis Jay’s review of the inquiry structure is due shortly. Each change leads to more turmoil which is further abuse for survivors who have been through so much already and have waited patiently since the inquiry began in 2014 but witnessed very little progress.
Dr Liz Davies
Reader in Child Protection (Emeritus)
London Metropolitan University