The effects of the Rochdale social services scandal are still with us
Even at the time, the satanic abuse fever that gripped some social services departments in the late 1980s and early 1990s appeared other-worldly. The lurid claims of well-organised human sacrifices and ritualised abuse seemed at best improbable. A succession of inquiries confirmed that the heady atmosphere in which determined social services professionals pursued these allegations resembled 17th-century Salem more than late-20th-century Britain. Not a single conviction for satanic practices followed. But until now one chapter of the story had yet to be written. For the first time we can hear the harrowing evidence of the children of Rochdale who were taken from their families in unforgivably clumsy dawn raids and kept apart on flimsy reasons for up to a decade.
Some of the details in the stories that we carry today are heart-rendingly senseless. Why was it considered necessary to deprive young children of their familiar clothes when they were taken into care? Why were their parents forbidden to visit on their birthdays? Why were the parents of one boy only allowed to see him for one month a year, even though a judge had dismissed the case against them? How, unchallenged, were social workers allowed to spin a single child’s dream into a reality that has devastated the lives of 16 children and their families?
No one should ever pretend that being a social worker is easy. Spending your working day dealing with some of the most vulnerable, disturbed and deprived members of society will never be a picnic. Moreover, it is the duty of social workers to listen to children who may not always be telling the truth. They would be rightly castigated if they failed to do so. Britain certainly needs social workers who are better trained. Many of them could be better paid. Most should be more experienced before they reach senior posts.
Some of the lessons have been absorbed. Interviewing techniques are, correctly, less suggestive than they used to be. Britain seems more resistant to the type of hysteria that crossed the Atlantic fifteen years ago, although nine adults in the Western Isles were wrongly accused of similar abuse only a couple of years ago.
However, there is never room for complacency and the response of Rochdale’s council officials to the public airing of the children’s stories is discouraging. Terry Piggott, the council executive director, is unclear how re-examining the past can help to protect today’s children. It is imperative that we continue to learn from such a catastrophe, and that the lessons be taught to new recruits. The BBC is to be congratulated for pursuing through the courts the right to tell the Rochdale stories. The resulting film is public service broadcasting of distinction.
Aspects of the “satanic panic” remain with us all. Some parents are frightened to take their child to the doctor lest they be reported to social services. Teachers and sports coaches are petrified of being regarded as interacting “inappropriately” with their charges. But, most of all, this tragedy still haunts the lives of the “victims”.