Scotland on Sunday, May 11, 2003
A woman who was taken into care as a child over unfounded sex abuse claims is suing a local authority for compensation for her ‘lost childhood’ in a landmark legal case, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
The woman, from Ayrshire, was one of hundreds of children wrongly removed from their families in a series of sex abuse investigations across Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The most notorious Scottish case involved 16 children from Orkney and led to a £6m public inquiry that criticised social workers.
The 23-year-old, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was taken from her family in Ayrshire by social workers in June 1990 amid allegations of satanic sexual abuse.
Even though she never claimed to have been sexually abused, and there was no medical evidence to suggest she had been, she was kept in care for almost five years.
Eight years on, in what is believed to be the first case of its kind in Britain, the woman is suing a local authority for compensation.
The woman, who was taken into care with seven other children, all of whom were members of the same extended family, said: “I spent five years in homes and with foster families who didn’t care for me.
“My education suffered badly and I became withdrawn. I still lack self-esteem. I have no confidence in anything I do.”
Her mother added: “Imagine what it would feel like to have your child taken away from you, not to see her for a year and to have only limited supervised contact for another four. This matter devastated my whole family.”
All eight have had solicitors acting on their behalf for a number of years. Their cases have never reached court because the Scottish Legal Aid Board has, until now, refused to fund their action.
Ian Smith, who acts for the 23-year-old woman, has finally persuaded the board to fund her action. A summons has been lodged with the Court of Session seeking substantial compensation.
A date for a hearing has not yet been set, but if the case is successful it would have massive ramifications for social services throughout the UK.
The woman is suing South Ayrshire Council, which replaced the local authority that took her into care, Strathclyde Regional Council. It is estimated the local authority could face a bill of more than £1m if the woman and the other seven children successfully sue.
The treatment of the Ayrshire children, and in particular the protracted questioning they faced about fantastic events that never occurred, was condemned as a form of abuse when Scotland’s senior judge ordered they be returned home. Lord Hope, who was then Lord President, described it as a “tragedy of immense proportions”.
The social work action began after one of the mothers asked social workers to examine one of her children. It later emerged that the woman and her husband had been on the verge of splitting up and that she had been in a poor emotional state.
Although the examinations did not reveal abuse, the woman’s children were kept in care. Within days, many of their cousins, including a six-month-old baby, and the woman who is now suing, were also removed from their families.
Charges were never brought against any of the parents and most were never even questioned by police, underlining the weakness of the case.
Nevertheless, at a hearing soon after they were seized, Sheriff Neil Gow decided that they should remain in care while investigations were carried out.
Social workers embarked on a sustained campaign to prove not only that the children had all been sexually abused, but that the abuse might have involved up to 90 adults and contained elements of satanic ritual.
It later emerged that descriptions of a party at which adults had been dressed up in ‘sinister’ costumes had been a fancy dress event for Hallowe’en.
The children remained in limbo for almost five years, drifting between foster homes and residential homes.
The woman now raising the action spent her first year away from her parents locked up with offenders at a unit in Johnstone. She claims she was offered virtually no education and was attacked by older residents. She was not allowed to see her parents during that year.
“I was a prisoner, along with older children who had offended,” she said. “I was attacked twice, once by a girl of about 14 or 15 who was violent and unstable.”
A spokesman for South Ayrshire Council said: “Any legal action against us as a successor authority to Strathclyde Regional Council, will be dealt with on an individual basis and appropriate action taken.”