Febuary 1994

Brief background:  New Barns School, in Gloucestershire, was a school for children with severe behavioural difficulties.

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The six-month trial involving staff at New Barns, an independent boarding school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties in Gloucestershire, ended with the eight defendants cleared of cruelty and conspiracy to falsely imprison pupils, writes Audrey Thompson.

But the trial raised serious concerns about the methods used to isolate children in residential care, and about what constitutes a legitimate reason to prosecute. Clearly, the defenders and critics of New Barns interpret the facts about what happened in the school in markedly different ways. One camp argues that the trial amounts to pronouncing guilt by association, the other that it would have been negligent not to prosecute.

The facts are that the trial was the result of a four-year police investigation triggered when customs officers discovered child pornography in the post addressed to New Barns governor Peter Righton in May 1992. Righton shared his home with New Barns head teacher, Richard Alston, who resigned later that same year.

Gloucestershire social services child protection team then held a meeting with all 15 of the authorities which had placed children at the home, and ten decided to withdraw them. The school’s governors decided, in the circumstances, it was better to send the rest of the children home for their summer break early.

During the investigation former care assistant Alan Stewart was charged with sexually assaulting three girls at the school and was later jailed for four years. The school, which had been running for 26 years, never reopened as new information about the ‘snug’, a windowless room used for isolating children, came to light.

But defenders of New Barns argue prosecutors could not substantiate the original allegation of a child pornography ring, so decided to prosecute for cruelty and false imprisonment instead, and proceeded with a trial that should never have taken place.

The ‘snug’, they say, was not a system for punishment but a means of cooling tense situations, and nothing any parent would feel ashamed of.

As the articles published here show, the debate about whether the prosecution should have gone ahead remains heated. But who is in the right? Child abuse is a complex and emotive issue, as yet still not well understood. Social services and the police have a duty, on behalf of us all, to act in children’s interests. The Crown Prosecution Service is a major filter for proposed legal action and the low proportion of cases which reach court is a matter of concern among all the professions and services involved.

A campaign is being conducted to ensure more openness about child abuse cases in north Wales. In other parts of the country perpetrators of large scale abuse in former approved schools, which in their time had vociferous supporters, are either on trial or have been tried and imprisoned. In Leicestershire two former victims of abuse have received recognition of their trauma.

In the clamour of indignant voices, and with corporate guilt for the pain children suffer, it is easy to lose sight of the facts. It is a fact, for example, that a residential establishment can advertise itself as a therapeutic community without challenge.

There is no accepted definition of a children’s therapeutic community, although there are overall working descriptions. Similarly, methods of care and treatment may be described as therapeutic by their exponents. Some are and some are not.

Examples of the latter were Frank Beck’s regression therapy, and Tony Latham’s Pindown. One man died in prison, revealed as a charlatan and gross sexual abuser; the other was seen to have established a cruel and abusive regime which continued for almost six years. Senior managers supported both men. Some social workers, teachers and policemen believed they were coping with ‘unmanageable kids’ and left them to it.

Some facts get left out of stories in the telling. Few residential establishments nowadays regularly take children of primary school age. The children at New Barns were six to 12 years old. How would parents fare if they shut young children in a small, windowless room, sometimes throughout the night, without a light and with the door handle removed to prevent exit?

The existence of the ‘snug’ was not previously known to agencies or parents sending their children. ‘Time out’ rooms, or secure rooms, have often been a cause for concern, and were banned long ago in homes for older children.

New Barns was founded in 1965 with the support of David Wills whose reputation as a Quaker and child care pioneer is well known. In 1991 Peter Righton’s male partner, who shared his home, was appointed principal.

Righton, one of the appointing governors, was arrested in April 1992 when child pornography was intercepted on its way to him. For that, and other pornographic material found in his home, he was subsequently fined £900.

Alan Stewart, in April 1993, was charged with sexual assault of three girl pupils at New Barns, while on the staff. He was later imprisoned for four years.

Allan Levy QC, a lawyer specialising in children’s affairs, urges the government to provide a practical lead in dealing with the changes sought by numerous inquiries into child abuse scandals. He says, for instance, that only if effective recruitment methods are in place will abusers be deterred from insinuating themselves into homes.

While Clywd is alleged to have been negligent in failing to act on complaints of physical and sexual abuse of children spanning decades, Gloucestershire social services acted as it is required to do in investigating complaints concerning children’s welfare.

The police and the Crown Prosecution Service, not social services, decide on court action. They all did what they believed to be right.Barbara Kahan is vice-chairperson at the National Children’s Bureau and co-author of the Pindown report

AGAINST: Why the prosecution was wrong

FOR: Why it was right to act

The recent prosecution of New Barns staff was unreasonable and wrong. The fact that the jury afterwards wrote to the Lord Chancellor to complain that the case should not have been brought strengthens this belief.

It was unreasonable to go ahead with the common law charge of conspiracy to falsely imprison, when the evidence had been collected with a different purpose in mind. This was to check the suspicion of a paedophile ring, based on no more evidence than the assumption of guilt by association.

Children were removed hurriedly and questioned in an atmosphere of scandal and vague explanations of what was going on. It was established, within two or three months, that there was no substance to the fears.

The proceedings should have been stopped then. It was not reasonable to go through a criminal investigation into alleged institutionalised sexual abuse in search of evidence to justify other charges.

It was unnecessary to prosecute. Any unease about the practice of the school should have been followed by a measured and full inquiry run in consultation with all the authorities concerned. This would have involved all the children and staff and the social workers who were apparently satisfied with the provision the school made over many years.

The serious main charge carried a potential prison sentence of 14 years and was in no way commensurate with the alleged offences. It was well out of line with the more serious Pindown affair, where the intent was deliberately punitive – and no one was even charged for that.

Nor was it in the best interests of the children to prosecute. The long drawn out process entailed huge collateral damage to the children, who relied on the school as an assured base, and to skilled staff, whose livelihood it was. The long delay ensured the closure of the school and so denied to other children the well attested healing work which had been New Barns’ proud record for 27 years.

The respective roles of the inspecting authority, police and Crown Prosecution Service, need to be made clear and public. It is understandable that the sexual abuse investigation was set up, but it could and should have been handled much more fairly.

Panic withdrawal of half the children led to early dispersal for the holiday. The authority could have put respected and skilled workers in place to monitor the school in the next term and avoided its premature closure.

It seems that residential establishments and every person who works in them are automatically assumed to be guilty or, at least, suspect. Those assumptions need to be properly explored or children will suffer needlessly. Is there a case for a modified guardian ad litem procedure?

There were no locks on any door in New Barns, except for the office. The worst that was established was on about six occasions in 12 years, 1980-92, the handle of a room was held from outside. In a similar number of cases the handle was temporarily removed, in effect locking the door.

In every instance this was done not as a punishment but to protect the child or other children in an otherwise unmanageable situation. In terms of regulations this was clearly not ‘good’ practice. However, in accordance with the judge’s guidance on the law, the jury found that it was not ‘outside the bounds of reasonable parental control and discipline’.

Copious evidence, mainly from child witnesses for the prosecution, testified that the provision made by New Barns was excellent in terms of relationships overall. That is what seems to have mattered most to a jury of ordinary citizens.

Chris Beedell, independent consultant to residential institutions and author of Residential Life with Children