Listening to children is critical to safeguarding

Keith Towler
Tuesday, January 20, 2015

It seems quite timely that my last substantive piece of work as commissioner sees me returning to the very reason why this organisation was established some 14 years ago.

A key recommendation of the Waterhouse Inquiry into past allegations of child abuse in North Wales care homes was the establishment of the UK's first children's commissioner, for Wales. A decade on, we continue to hear of tragic tales of past allegations of child abuse in care homes through Operation Pallial - an independent investigation to examine specific allegations of past child abuse in north Wales, led by Keith Bristow, director general of the National Crime Agency (NCA).

Two years since the inception of this investigation, I was asked as a member of the strategic co-ordinating group to co-ordinate and publish a report looking at how agencies, including the police, local authorities, the NCA and Victim Support, have worked to support complainants involved with Operation Pallial.

Last week, I published Learning the Lessons, which attempts for the first time to identify emerging lessons that any future investigation could learn from. It also examines the implications of Operation Pallial for children in present care settings in Wales. It looks at the early processes established by the operation, including its communications work, the support made available for survivors, and transition.

From the outset, I was determined to listen to survivors' perspectives and hear from them what learning points they could suggest for future investigations. The views of the four survivors who provided an honest account of their experiences were critical in forming the basis of a number of lessons. These included the impact of social and broadcast media on survivors; issues in relation to survivors' court experience; the need for a dedicated social worker to be appointed to any future investigative team to assist with survivor-handling issues; and consideration of the impact of such major inquiries on organisations that provide specialist counselling, at a time when there is substantial demand generally.

Positive feedback

Many of these survivors had spoken out previously about their abuse and therefore had limited expectations of Operation Pallial. It was pleasing to hear them now speaking positively about their experiences: "I'm amazed they have achieved a court case and conviction and I thank the police and the CPS for that," said one, with another offering this: "I just want to thank Pallial for taking me seriously."

And for me, this is the critical lesson: since its inception, the investigation has wanted to be survivor-led. While the numbers of survivors I was able to speak to was limited, due to legal issues, I am hopeful this publication will be the first in a series that will enable those leading the other various past child abuse inquiries to listen to the views of more survivors, so that they all become survivor-led inquiries.

With these handful of child abuse inquiries now under way across the UK, I feel duty-bound to assure children and young people in care settings in Wales today that they are safe and that there are systems in place to protect them. And of course, they now have a commissioner there to protect and promote their rights, and make sure they are being listened to and treated fairly.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, survivors weren't listened to, and they weren't taken seriously.

It is not empty rhetoric when I say how important it is to listen to children and young people - it is a critical safeguarding tool. If people take just one lesson away from this report, I hope it's just that.

Keith Towler is children's commissioner for Wales

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