Do you care to go to jail?

AS I WRITE THIS article three social workers I have come to know personally are standing trial in different parts of the country, facing allegations that they once physically and sexually abused a number of young people in their care. Four more social workers are also standing trial. These are merely the cases I know of. Other trials are undoubtedly taking place elsewhere and many more are planned.

Considered dispassionately, the evidence in the cases of the three social workers I know suggests that they are completely innocent. By the time this article is published their trials will be over. But, if our system of justice continues to operate as it has done in the past, there is a strong possibility that all three will have been convicted.

This is because, in the last ten years, we have inadvertently created a machine for bringing about miscarriages of justice. In response to the realisation that multiple allegations of abuse almost always lead to convictions, an entirely new form of police investigation has evolved. Instead of waiting for allegations to be made spontaneously, police forces up and down the country are now actively looking for them. They are doing so through massive trawling operations in which they deliberately seek out former residents of care homes and invite them to make complaints – sometimes against specific workers. Thousands of young men and women have already been contacted and many of them have made allegations of serious physical or sexual abuse.

Some of these complaints are true and have helped convict social workers who have indeed betrayed the trust placed in them. But there are clear indications that many complaints have been fabricated. Those who find it difficult to believe that anyone would deliberately invent an allegation of sexual abuse should ponder the case of former social worker Jonathan Parkes.*

Some years ago, in response to concerns expressed by a whistle-blower, a trawl was launched in the area where Parkes once worked. It has by now collected allegations against dozens of social workers, some of whom have been charged. Parkes is one of these and his trial has already taken place.

Many of those who were close to Parkes, or who had worked with him, believed unreservedly that he was an innocent man wrongly accused. This view was shared by his legal team. At the last moment they managed to track down a former resident of the home where he had worked. This man spoke highly of Parkes and praised the standards of care at the home. He was clearly going to be a key witness for the defence and he gave a strong statement over the phone. He then inquired why people would make allegations if they were not true. It was suggested that one possible motive was compensation. The man asked what sums were involved and a figure of £10,000 was mentioned.

Later that same day this key defence witness walked into his local police station and made an allegation of indecent assault against Jonathan Parkes. He immediately became a prosecution witness. Although his complaint was discredited in court, Parkes was convicted on the testimony of others and is now serving a prison sentence.

The story of the witness who changed sides starkly illustrates the dangers involved in police trawling operations. These are carried out among witnesses who are often already aware of the possibility of compensation. Many are highly suggestible, have long records of criminal dishonesty, and are practised in the art of fabrication. When police officers approach such witnesses in a deliberate quest for allegations it would be remarkable if they always responded truthfully. While the majority make no complaint, and some make genuine complaints, others respond by fabricating allegations.

These false allegations sometimes refer back twenty, or even thirty years. Because of their indeterminate nature they are usually impossible to disprove. Because of their violence or obscenity they are almost always extremely powerful.

Complaints of this kind are difficult for any jury to assess. Faced by such evidence, most juries will err on the side of caution and convict. Even where each individual allegation is discredited during cross-examination, juries will almost always respond to multiple allegations by finding the defendant guilty on some counts, on the principle that ‘there is no smoke without fire’. What neither juries nor judges tend to understand is that police trawling operations, by targeting specific individuals, almost always create a great deal of smoke even where there is no fire at all.

One solicitor who has specialised in trawling cases, Chris Saltrese, believes that, in Wales and the North-west alone, as many as 20 innocent social workers have been imprisoned for up to 15 years for crimes they did not commit. My own research points to a similar conclusion. If this is indeed the case, how has injustice on such a scale gone virtually unnoticed not only by the press, but by the social work profession itself?

One answer to this question is that journalists have been in the forefront of those promoting the view that ‘children’s homes’ are all but synonymous with abuse. Many newspapers have a vested interest in ignoring evidence that contradicts this view. They have effectively kept social workers in the dark about what is happening in their own profession.

But there is another, even more disquieting answer. It is that the innocent social workers who are now in prison are there in part because other social workers have helped to put them there.

The majority of those in prison are residential social workers, who, for historical reasons concerned partly with attitudes to child care, and partly  with class, education and salary, have often been viewed by field social workers as poor relations rather than colleagues. The disdain with which ordinary ‘care workers’ were regarded in the 1980s and early 1990s was one of the factors that allowed a new and extremely dangerous idea to emerge –  the belief that children’s homes had been infiltrated by rings of organised paedophiles.

This idea began to gain currency among field social workers and child protection workers in about 1990, at the same time that allegations about organised satanic abuse were being discredited. The new idea was as unfounded as the old but, instead of being opposed, it was enthusiastically embraced by many. When whistleblowers expressed their belief in the existence of such rings, senior social workers responded by triggering massive police investigations. As these investigations have in their turn led to sensational reports in the media, residential social workers have come to be  treated almost as a pariah people. The vast majority of dedicated and caring staff have been smeared with the crimes committed by a minority. Care workers have become the new untouchables, who may be abused and reviled with impunity.

Far from opposing such vilification of  their colleagues, many field social workers have remained silent. Some have even endorsed the new view. As a direct result a caring profession has become profoundly uncaring towards some of the very people who need its sympathy most – colleagues who face the misery and the terror of having false allegations made against them.

By co-operating with dangerous methods of investigation, field social workers and child protection workers have ensured that a number of guilty people have been convicted. But, at the same time, they have unleashed upon innocent residential workers a witch-hunt of frightening proportions. Even those who have never been charged have sometimes had their lives blighted and their careers destroyed by false allegations. The recent publication of the deeply flawed Waterhouse report is likely only to intensify the witch-hunt. Before any more innocent social workers are convicted it is time to call a halt.

In the first place we should recognise that whistleblowers are not infallible. A climate where whistleblowers are always disbelieved is indeed a dangerous one, as Terry Dadswell suggested recently in ‘Whistleblowing and Waterhouse’ (Professional Social Work, March 2000). The vast majority of whistleblowers are motivated by a genuine sense of justice. A tiny minority, however, may be motivated by malice. Or they may simply be mistaken. In recognising the importance of whistleblowers we should not replace an attitude of automatic disbelief with one of automatic belief. The essential point is that their complaints should always be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.

Secondly, and even more importantly, social workers in general, and directors of social services in particular, should recognise that trawling operations are among the most dangerous forms of investigation in the history of modern policing.

If justice is to be served, senior social workers should now join the grassroots movements of residential social workers in North Wales, in South Wales and on Merseyside, in calling for a halt to trawling operations and a public inquiry into current police methods.

If such a call is not made and heeded the pace of allegations and arrests is likely to accelerate and many more innocent social workers will find their families destroyed and their liberty taken from them because of crimes they have not committed and which, indeed, have not taken place at all.


* This name has been changed

Professional Social Work: The Magazine of the British Association of Social Workers, June 2000

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© Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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