Melanie Klein Residential Home, Greenwich
The Guardian, 7th March 1990
by Madeleine Bunting
Society: Victims of a divided home – A home for girls, many physically or sexually abused, is likely to be closed after claims about undue force and sexual misconduct by staff. Madeleine Bunting investigates events that led to an official inquiry, talks to the psychotherapist and to former staff members
A TROUBLED London home for adolescent girls is expected to be closed as a result of an official inquiry into persistent allegations of inadequate care, undue physical force, and sexual misconduct by staff.
Concern about conditions at Melanie Klein House in the London Borough of Greenwich came to a head after the council’s director of social services, who is about to become director of the prestigious Sheffield social services department, personally ensured the employment at the home of a care worker who had been disciplined for ‘harassment’ at another children’s home in the borough. Melanie Klein House is managed by Greenwich as a resource for adolescent girls from all London boroughs.
A previous report in 1989 by the Department of Health’s Social Services Inspectorate (SSI) said girls were unnecessarily locked up for long periods in the home’s secure unit, ‘putting staff and girls at risk of being emotionally and physically damaged’. Poor standards of care, the report said, were due to the fact that 80 per cent of the staff were unqualified and 45 per cent were temporary. It ordered that new admissions be stopped, and warned that the situation was ‘becoming untenable’. In September 1988, shortly after the inspection, one of the care workers was alleged to have had sex with a girl resident in the home without her consent.
The six-place secure unit within the home was for girls who could be extremely violent. They could be locked up in rooms measuring about 10 ft by 6 ft, with a fixed bed and toilet, and access to a sparsely furnished recreation room and small exercise yard.
Many of the residents were in care after being abused sexually or physically; Melanie Klein was a last resort after placements in foster homes and children’s homes broke down. The home aims ‘to provide a sympathetic, caring, and skilled response’.
In July 1988 when the SSI team visited, the secure unit was full. This was the result of ‘crisis management’, the report said. ‘Too great a dependency on the secure unit was being made for reasons that were not al-ways in the best interest of the girls.’
Staff were placed in situations which they had neither the experience nor the training to handle, the report said, and as a consequence resorted to locking up the girls. Some girls who needed specialist help were ‘inappropriately’ admitted to Melanie Klein, it said.
The girls’ ‘emotional needs are only partially met’, the report said, because of the lack of coherent and consistent care. It called for a statement on the home’s aims and objectives, for a staff training programme to be instituted immediately, and for the dependence on temporary staff to be reduced.
Henrietta Coker worked at Melanie Klein in 1987 and 1988 while studying for a sociology degree and training for a social work qualification. ‘It was somewhere to dump children, but it was crazy to put difficult kids in Melanie Klein where so many of the staff were inexperienced agency people who just thought these were awkward adolescents,’ she says. ‘Some of the behaviour was clearly a result of the sexual abuse these girls had experienced.
‘It was quite common to see male members of staff using inappropriate physical force to restrain girls. The kids got nothing out of Melanie Klein except containment. For their social workers it meant one less case on their work load.
‘If girls ran away, when they came back they were put in ‘secure’ overnight and searched automatically. One girl came back after running away and staff wanted to find her post office book, and they thought she had cannabis on her, so they strip-searched her. They strip-searched her at least twice. Finally they made her jump, and the book fell from between her legs. It all took several hours. I think you traumatise people when you strip-search them.’
One girl was taken into care when she was 14. Not long afterwards, she was referred to Melanie Klein where she stayed for a year-and-a-half. ‘I wasn’t used to the idea of restraining girls; a lot of girls got bruised and hurt,’ she says. ‘It really upset me. I was restrained only three or four times, but I’m claustrophobic, and if someone sits on me I go nuts.’ She saw one girl being dragged through the home by male members of staff with nothing on except her bra and knickers. ‘I’d just arrived and I couldn’t believe it.’
Seumas Bell worked at Melanie Klein for nearly two years as a temporary group leader. ‘There was some very unnecessary restraint of the children and they got hurt,’ he says. ‘Inexperienced staff feared losing control, so they dragged the children off to the secure unit.’
Several staff at all levels in the home have described how the stress of working at Melanie Klein without effective support put intolerable strain on their marriages and families. Several staff sought psychotherapy.
‘You can’t run a place like Melanie Klein with inexperienced staff, and staff shortages. It was a nightmare sometimes,’ says a former member of staff who does not wish to be named. ‘The staff’s safety was threatened by their lack of experience: you’re dealing with very difficult kids who can be very volatile and violent. It was very stressful, and the hours were incredible.’
Even before the SSI inspection, senior staff at Melanie Klein were concerned that an ‘unprecedented atmosphere of mistrust, fear and rumour’ existed among staff, and they wrote in February 1988 to Greenwich’s social services department about ‘a perturbing deterioration in the standard of child care practice’.
Greenwich claims many of the criticisms the SSI made after its inspection in July 1988 had already been identified by late 1987, and were being tackled. But former staff deny this. The SSI wrote to the Director of Social Services, Martin Manby, highlighting their concerns in October 1988. In September 1989, Mr Manby told the social services committee that a number of improvements were made in the running of the home. The Department of Health said last week that a number of recommendations in the report had been implemented and that ‘recommendations relating to staff and general procedure would have been discussed with staff immediately’.
But David Shrimpton, the consultant pyschotherapist at Melanie Klein, claims the report effectively was shelved. He claims its recommendation that the aims of Melanie Klein be identified was never implemented. His attempts to do this between 1986 and 1989, he says, were repeatedly frustrated. He claims the children’s emotional needs continued not to be met; at least two girls were refused permission to see him for psychotherapy.
He said he knew of no staff discussions about the role of the secure unit, and that it continued to be abused. ‘There was too much reliance on ‘secure’ as a method of control rather than as the last resort.’ The log book for July-November 1988 reveals that staff were still under considerable pressure because of frequent staff shortages.
ONE SSI recommendation more staff training was implemented. Seven staff from Melanie Klein attended a ‘physical restraint’ course last autumn at another of Greenwich’s children’s homes, Frant Court. In minutes of a staff meeting at Melanie Klein, the staff expressed concern that the techniques taught were ‘perceived to be aggressive and violent’, ‘were not safe’, and ‘would necessarily involve the over-use of strength resulting in hurting clients (residents)’. Others said: ‘All the participants from Melanie Klein felt that course tutors made totally unacceptable remarks against women high levels of sexism . . . Several course participants were hurt during the course.’ Staff expressed particular anger at being taught to strip-search girls forcibly.
Greenwich denied that the course teaches forcible strip-searching, and had no explanation of why staff should have found any tutors sexist.
Allegations about a children’s home are not new to Greenwich. In 1987 the police were investigated Green Lane children’s home after allegations involving drugs, alcohol, and unlawful sex. There were no prosecu-tions. Internal inquiries led to the dismissal of the deputy superintendent, Polly Perkins, for gross misconduct. Lloyd Austin, a senior care worker, was disciplined for ‘harassment’. After Mr Austin had been suspended from Green Lane but before his disciplinary hearing in February 1988, Peter Bottomley, MP for Eltham (the constituency that covers Green Lane) intervened on his behalf, telling the local branch secretary of Mr Austin’s former union, the Association of Clerical, Technical and Supervisory Staffs, Charles Maslin, to ‘call off his dogs by Monday evening’.
Three members of staff brought allegations of sexual harassment against Mr Austin. One claimed at a disciplinary hearing chaired by Mr Manby, that sexual harassment by Mr Austin culminated in a physical assault upon her 18 months before, in September 1986. Mr Austin was not dismissed but was charged with ‘harassment’, given a final warning, and demoted. (name) Cullen, Greenwich’s director of care services, was re-ported as referring to Mr Austin’s offences as ‘bad habits’. Mr Manby transferred Mr Austin to the Melanie Klein home.
‘Our staff are predominantly women, and our policy with someone of this nature is to redeploy them to a more structured environment where there are both male and female staff,’ Greenwich said last week. The council felt unable to comment further before the inquiry by the London Boroughs Children’s Regional Planning Committee (LBRPC) reports.
Minutes of staff meetings at Melanie Klein and letters from the principal, Paul Hodgkinson, to the Greenwich Social Services Department, make it clear the staff were deeply concerned at Mr Austin’s appointment.
‘I have not been privy to all the facts concerning the above person (Mr Austin),’ wrote Mr Hodgkinson. ‘The information I have obtained gives me considerable cause for concern for my centre. If you were really appreciative of the situation at Melanie Klein and really wanted to see the centre move forward, you would not introduce a problem such as could be presented by Lloyd Austin without the close co-operation of the manager and senior staff.’
Mr Manby himself undertook to reply to Mr Hodgkinson: ‘These instructions emanated directly from myself.’ In a memo from Mr Cullen, Mr Hodgkinson was told that ‘the director insists that this request is carried out as soon as possible’.
Mr Austin moved to Melanie Klein in April 1988. Soon afterwards, a member of staff lodged with her supervisor a complaint of sexual harassment against Mr Austin; she was satisfied the complaint was being considered. A member of staff thought him ‘smooth, a real charmer’. He was popular with the girls in the home.
Tracy (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) in particular formed an attachment to Mr Austin. She had a history of emotional neglect, and had been the victim of an assault with an electric carving knife about a year before. Tracy was 16, but she was educationally subnormal and had a mental age of 8. On September 6, 1988, Tracy told a friend that during the night of September 3 she had half-woken and felt someone on top of her. When she fully woke, she saw Mr Austin on the edge of her bed doing up his flies. She said he had had sex with her, but without her consent. The allegation was immediately reported to the staff, and Mr Austin was suspended. The police do not appear to have been informed until September 13, a week later.
When the police asked to interview Tracy, staff denied them access saying that because Tracy was a ward of court, permission had to be sought from the High Court. The police protested and pointed out that a new ruling had laid down only that the High Court be informed as soon as possible. The staff log book reveals staff ‘forgot to ask’ Tracy’s social worker, when she made a routine visit to the home on September 22, whether permission had been granted.
On October 4, nearly a month after the allegation, the police interviewed Tracy. Mr Austin was arrested, but no charges were brought. The police were very concerned at the circumstances of the case, but Tracy’s statement was too vague and her attraction towards Mr Austin compromised her allegations. Eight months later, she still maintained publicly she had been raped. Tracy’s social worker said it might be stressful for Tracy to give evidence at the disciplinary hearing, so Mr Manby and two representatives of Mr Austin’s union, Nalgo, came to Melanie Klein House to interview Tracy on November 2. Mr Manby and Nalgo claim Tracy’s social worker was present, but there is no reference in the relevant entry in the log book. Mr Manby returned to Melanie Klein on November 11 at 7.20 pm to interview in the company of a care worker a friend of Tracy. Cllr Graham Holland, former chairman of the LBCRPC, still finds it hard to believe Mr Manby visited the girls at the home. ‘I think it was an unusual thing for someone of his status to do. The director is the final judge in a disciplinary hearing, and I believe they should stay at arms’ length from an inquiry of this nature.’
Rosie Barnes, MP for Greenwich, called for Mr Manby’s suspension on full pay pending an inquiry into the alleged rape. She was particularly concerned that so senior a council officer had conducted the interview. ‘Manby turning up to interview the girl must have been like God descending from heaven,’ she said.
AFTER the allegation of rape, the staff member’s allegation of sexual harassment by Mr Austin was pursued. Mr Manby chaired the disciplinary hearing; charges against Mr Austin of inappropriate conduct with children in care and sexual harassment of a female member of staff were proven.
On the charge of ‘sexual misconduct culminating in sexual intercourse’, Mr Manby came to the conclusion that ‘the allegation of sexual intercourse was inconclusive . . . the director was unable to dismiss the possibility that you engaged in sexual misconduct at some level with (Tracy) . . . The director is unable to tolerate the abuse of any children in Greenwich’s care or the possibility of such abuse’.
Mr Manby denied in the press that the allegations of sexual misconduct had been the reason for dismissal. Greenwich maintains Mr Austin was dismissed for sexual harassment.
From entries in the log book it is clear that other girls at Melanie Klein were angry with Tracy because her allegations had led to the dismissal of one of the most popular members of staff. Tracy repeatedly sought therapy sessions from Mr Shrimpton. ‘She would stop me in the corridor and ask for help on numerous occasions,’ Mr Shrimpton says. ‘I referred her to her link-worker, and said it had to go through the proper channels. I cannot comment on why permission was refused.’
Rosie Barnes and the National Association of Young People in Care have taken up Tracy’s case. NAYPIC was issued with an injunction, and Ms Barnes was told not to contact Tracy, as the injunction applied to her too. ‘I am very concerned about the general principle of a proper, independent complaints procedure for a child in care. I feel very strongly that injunctions prevent these young people from making complaints,’ said Ms Barnes.
In February 1989, Cllr Chris Fay compiled a list of the allegations against Melanie Klein which had been brought to him, and sent it to David Mellor, then junior minister at the Department of Health. An inquiry was set up under the auspices of the LBCRPC. The panel began its investigation early last summer, and by July had decided there was sufficient cause for concern to close the Melanie Klein immediately.
But Greenwich’s solicitor, David Atkinson wrote to John Ogden, the panel’s chairman: ‘I feel extreme disquiet . . . the panel was of the view that its concerns, based on the evidence of the young women, were such that no evidence of staff would be sufficient to outweigh such concerns. I consider that this position could be seen to undermine the panel’s decision-making.’
In September, after meeting some Melanie Klein staff, Mr Ogden confirmed that the panel considered that the home should close, with the rider that a small number of residents could stay ‘prior to moving to alternative placements’.
There are still three girls at Melanie Klein. The LBCRPC report is to be published ‘as soon as possible’.