Lives ruined by legacy of secret abuse

THE reign of Malcolm Phillips and Andrew Shalders at Skircoat Lodge ruined lives and created damaged children who grew into scarred adults.

In the witness box at Bradford Crown Court, their victims told of broken relationships, mental illnesses, criminal convictions and nightmares dominated by their abusers.

But they kept their abuse secret for years.

When Calderdale Social Services officials decided to investigate their children’s homes they hoped to clear the air of long-standing suspicions. They can hardly have imagined the sort of monsters they would uncover.

With police, they found a nightmarish world where frightened children could be humiliated and raped, shipped off to secure units at a moment’s notice or kept as sex toys for months while they begged to be sent to foster families.

The investigation began as a general inquiry into all Calderdale’s children’s homes, but soon became closely focused on Skircoat Lodge, Halifax, which opened in 1976 with Malcolm Phillips in charge to assess vulnerable children.

But once in charge Phillips, who previously worked at a Birmingham boy’s home, established a “climate of fear” in which he could do as he liked for 18 years.

Described as powerful, domineering and charismatic, he alternated affection with explosions of anger that terrified children and staff.

As well as using his position to assault girls, police were also told he sexually harassed female staff and on one occasion went to a woman’s room at night to make unwanted advances.

Meanwhile, social worker Andrew Shalders took advantage of the situation to abuse the boys. Described as laid back and even weak compared with Phillips, he could be sadistic and vicious in private.

He particularly targeted bedwetters, as he could wake them in the night when no one else was around, but sometimes buggered boys on the spur of the moment.

One boy was told he would be sent to another children’s home, where his brothers were living, if he complied. Shalders then threatened to renege on the deal whenever the boy tried to refuse. He was never reunited with his brothers.

The abuse scandal was not the first to hit Calderdale social services.

In 1982, assistant social services director Rod Ryall – who worked near Phillips in the same Birmingham authority in the 1970s – was given a warning after photographing two boys in running kit at his home. Six years later, Ryall, by then promoted to director, was convicted of abusing two boys over four years.

Meanwhile, warning signs went unheeded.

In 1985, Shalders was suspended after a Skircoat Lodge boy and four former residents said he had sexually assaulted them. The case was dropped because of insufficient evidence and Shalders was reinstated.

Police papers relating to the investigation have since been destroyed and, though none of the boys withdrew their allegations, their testimony could not be heard in the trial for legal reasons.

In 1994, an NSPCC report criticised Skircoat. It said bathroom doors were missing locks, staff walked into children’s rooms unannounced, meals were eaten in silence and children and staff seemed dominated by Phillips, who was later suspended.

A year later, a former resident accused Phillips of rape. No charges were brought, but Phillips was dismissed a year later as a result of the NSPCC investigation and the home closed.

In 1997, new social services director Chris Brabbs decided to hold an investigation, expecting it to finish within months, to help make a fresh start. But within weeks, a man arrived at a Surrey police station and accused Shalders of rape.

The team of two grew to 16 social workers and police, who interviewed 2,500 people including 600 former Skircoat Lodge residents.

Shalders, who had left Skircoat in 1988 to work with mentally handicapped adults, was suspended by Calderdale social services and arrested. No adults are thought to have been abused.

The inquiry also uncovered sexual abuse at other homes, including Dobroyd Castle, a secure boy’s home in Todmorden. Retired staff member Terence O’Hagan, 67, was charged with assaults on boys aged 14 to 16 between 1973 and 1975. Before the trial, he died of natural causes at his home in Bootle, Merseyside.

Two men and a woman from Mixenden children’s home and two women and a man from Skircoat Lodge were also arrested in connection with sexual and physical abuse, but there was insufficient evidence for charges.

The first social worker involved in the investigation, Deborah Wortman, said independent support workers were hired for each of the 31 victims. She said: “Most of the victims hadn’t even told their partners they had been in care, let alone about the abuse, and a lot of relationships were shattered.

“During a major inquiry in North Wales, they lost 19 victims to suicide in the run-up to the trials and the tribunal and we didn’t want that.

“The women remembered Phillips as being a 6ft tall, muscular, omnipresent giant. The men were just as frightened of Shalders. It was a terrifying experience for them to meet their abusers in court.”

The victims will now be offered counselling, which they couldn’t have earlier for fear of contaminating their evidence.

Ms Wortman said she was saddened but not surprised by the abuse they uncovered.

She said: “It was a different world then. Children weren’t listened to and they didn’t have rights. We heard over and over again that they didn’t know who to turn to. They were lost.”

Calderdale’s new social services director, Phillip Lewer, said children going into care were now given packs about their rights and Freephone helpline numbers.

He said the department now checked police records of all new staff, which did not happen in the 1970s and 80s.

There were activities to raise awareness of abuse and independent social workers visited homes to talk to residents. Children leaving a foster or care home were now offered exit interviews.

Mr Lewer said: “I’m 99.9 per cent sure that it will not happen again. I can’t give assurances, but we have done everything humanly possible to make sure it does not.”

amy.binns@ypn.co.uk