Council 'tried to hamper inquiries into children's home failings'

Watchdog blasts Yorkshire authority for refusal to hand over documents

Rob Waugh

A YORKSHIRE council severely criticised for letting down vulnerable children in its care blocked attempts by two leading welfare organisations to investigate its actions, the Yorkshire Post can reveal today.

Wakefield Council refused to give the Children's Rights Director copies of internal reports following whistleblowing at two of its children's homes despite repeated requests.

It also blocked the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) from carrying out a full investigation into serious concerns about the management of its homes.

A report to the Government-appointed Children's Rights Director, Roger Morgan, obtained after a Freedom of Information request by the Yorkshire Post, said refusal to hand over the reports left the council "open to suggestions that it has something to hide".

It also blasted the council's blocking of a full NSPCC inquiry as "perverse" and warned that as a result, the integrity of the children's charity's findings had been "seriously compromised".

The council last night faced a call for a full independent inquiry into how its services for children in care were being managed amid criticism it was more interested in "self-preservation than child protection".

The revelations in the report follow an investigation into how the council dealt with concerns raised by six whistleblowers who were sacked for speaking out about the treatment of children in homes run by the local authority.

The six – Karen Allcock, Keith Bayliss, Vincent Felix, Doug Lafferty, Grant Morley and Clive Womersley – blew the whistle on a catalogue of mismanagement.

It included a care worker using petty cash to buy cannabis and then smoking the drugs with children in his care; children as young as 12 being allowed to engage in sexual relationships; a 16-year-old girl at risk of prostitution being thrown out of care with nowhere to go; and a series of violent incidents leading to staff being seriously injured because managers refused to listen to their concerns about the inappropriate placing of disturbed children.

The six have now launched an employment tribunal case under the Public Interest Disclosure Act which is aimed at protecting whistleblowers from victimisation., and last night they reacted with anger to the latest report's findings.

They said it vindicated their decision to reveal serious failures in management in children's homes through the Yorkshire Post after failing to get the council to take action.

One of them, Clive Womersley said: "It's disgusting that a Government-appoin-ted body can't even get access to information they asked for from the council.

"The Children's Rights Director is an organisation set up to protect the interests of children – if they can't get co-operation from the council who is actually protecting children?"

Another of the whistleblowers, Grant Morley, said: "I'm shocked but not surprised that Wakefield Council would be so unwilling to respond to the Children's Rights Director when it means having to talk about their own mistakes and failings or anything that involves them having to admit failure.

"It's all about the process of self-preservation rather than child protection."

The report to the Children's Rights Director is severely critical of how the council stopped the NSPCC fully investigating the whistleblowers' concerns after the charity had been commissioned to carry out an inquiry.

Mr Morley added: "The council held up the NSPCC investigation as giving it a clean bill of health, but as it turns out the NSPCC had grave reservations about how it was being allowed to progress its investigations. Its hands were in shackles when it came to investigating.

"Senior managers at the council should be sacked for the way the council has behaved."

The head of children's services at the council, Kitty Ferris, is to leave the authority shortly but a spokesman said yesterday that this was her decision to take voluntary early retirement following a bereavement in her family.

Last night one of the MPs for the Wakefield area expressed his concern at the report's findings.

Jon Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth, said: "I have sought an assurance from the chief executive that all the lessons of this whole sorry procedure will be fully learned and the recommendations will be fully implemented."

The report's findings further undermine confidence in the council's care of vulnerable children following

the jailing of two foster carers for abusing boys in June.

Jailing Ian Wathey and Craig Faunch for five and six years respectively, the trial judge, Sally Cahill QC, said it was "quite incredible" that Wakefield Council had not involved the police at an earlier stage.

The council has since commissioned an independent inquiry into the circumstances of the case.

The council said last night that it accepted the report's recommendations but claimed the complexity of the situation had been "largely ignored".

Wayne Jenkins, Wakefield Council's Cabinet member for children and young people, said: "The safety of children in our care is our first priority and we work hard to make sure we have proper regard to children's rights.

"However, we feel the Children's Rights Director has focused on rights to the exclusion of other factors, while the council needed to take all other factors into account as well. We will use the findings to help our future service improvements."

But the leader of the Conservative opposition on the council said he was "sickened" by the report's findings.

Coun Mike Walker said: "I take no pleasure in knowing that all I have been saying for some time would now appear to be confirmed by this statutory body.

"This last few years I have observed a catalogue of catastrophes around the issue of children in the care of Wakefield social services.

"I hope reason will now prevail and an investigation into Wakefield social services' performance in the area of looked after children, by a body truly independent of the council, will now take place."

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