Additional response to the Support Payment Scheme Proposal: Dr Sarah Nelson OBE

Islington Council: Proposed Support Payment Scheme for survivors of abuse suffered while placed by the council in one of its children’s homes from 1966 to 1995.

Comment from Dr Sarah Nelson OBE

I was asked by Islington Survivors’ Network if I had any comments on the proposed Payment Support Scheme, which might prove helpful to the Council when considering from its Consultation any possible amendments or additions to its proposals.

I am a research specialist on childhood sexual abuse and its effects throughout life, and a Research Associate and Hon.Fellow at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at Edinburgh University. I have worked extensively for decades with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), particularly on lifelong impacts of the abuse; and on their views from personal experience on what is helpful and unhelpful in terms of promoting or protecting recovery.  I have also worked as a professional adviser to the Scottish Government when it considered wider forms of historical abuse – physical, emotional, sexual, and neglect – in institutional care, and have interviewed many survivors of such wider experiences in care.  In October 2020 I was awarded the OBE for services to survivors of abuse.

 

I want first to express my welcome and appreciation to  LBI for making a support scheme available to survivors of historic abuse, and for making clear that applications and payments will not affect the right of any survivor to make a civil claim for compensation, nor to bring a criminal case. Any criticisms or concerns I express about current proposals do not diminish that welcome, nor suggest doubt about the sincere intentions of the Council. Rather I hope they will be taken in the spirit of attempting to improve the scheme, to avoid unnecessary retraumatising of survivors through its process, and to meet better the ethical principles which the Council itself sets out.

I have realised that it is often not possible to separate ethical and human rights issues from concerns about possible retraumatising, and that they frequently run in tandem.

 

Some concerns about the current structures of the Support Payment Scheme

The principal concerns I would have about the planned scheme as laid out in the Consultation, and from my own research into the lived experience of survivors, would be:

  • Whether the exclusion by the Council of other sorts of placement from the support payment scheme, including foster care and boarding school placements, makes logical or ethical sense.
  • Whether there is sufficient human expertise on survivor issues and experiences per se. in the decision-making process as it stands; and if closer involvement by, in particular, Islington Survivors Network who have amassed so much experience and information would better ensure this. 
  • Whether aspects of the checking and investigation process do not fit well with, or actually conflict with, the Council’s declared aims in relation to the limited standards of proof required, and the avoidance of survivor retraumatisation.
  • Whether the adverse issues clauses in relation to criminal convictions are currently too severe, unrealistic and excluding, given the life trajectories of many people who faced abuse as children (especially in care settings), and which have often led to involvement in the criminal justice system.               

Exclusion of certain placements, certain criteria or certain perpetrators from the scheme

The support payments scheme involves children placed by the council in LBI run children’s homes only. Placements by the Council in foster care with families, or in small group homes, do not appear to be covered by this scheme where abuse occurred in these settings. Yet the council was responsible for placing children there, and it had a responsibility to regulate and vet foster parents. The logical, practical and ethical starting point is surely whether or not you were abused whilst in the care of LBI. This similarly holds true for other settings where children were placed by LBI, such as boarding schools, private children’s homes and secure units, or while they were sent on holiday to other institutions by LBI and abused there, while in the council’s care.

By limiting the scheme to local authority children’s homes, not only is a hierarchy of merit which the Council would find very difficult to rationalise or justify created among survivors. It will also appear as if the council is simply trying to limit its financial liability.

There is a similar point with reference to exclusion of peer- on- peer abuse occurring under the council’s care, in their homes or in settings to which the council sent them, from the scheme. The council had a logical, practical and ethical responsibility to ensure that children were safe in such settings.

Finally LBI states that emotional abuse is covered by this support payment scheme. Neglect is clearly a form of emotional abuse and its exclusion is therefore puzzling.

The degree of informed expertise built into this process

I am concerned that there is currently perhaps insufficient expertise and informed awareness in this scheme process, both of survivor issues in general, and about the specific historical situation in Islington. This is at all levels:  to ensure the application forms are filled in effectively, to make the most accurate decisions about granting the payments, to make accurate decisions at appeal level through an IRP, and to avoid retraumatising effects as far as possible. All these issues are actually interconnected and the problems of retraumatisation potentially run through them all.

Cognitive problems which can affect the ability to, for instance, fill in detailed forms, and problems of self confidence and belief in one’s own ability are two very common impacts of abuse trauma in childhood. I believe it will therefore be important that ISN and any other support group of a survivor’s choosing are actively encouraged to assist survivors to express that survivor’s wishes and opinions through their application form.

In terms of information and the greatest amount of available historical detail possible it would also seem essential that the historical body of evidence assembled by ISN, wherever relevant, is fed into the decisionmaking process o the support payment and in the appeals process.

In a three person panel whether at initial or appeal stage it would be essential that the panel composition is of people who genuinely have an informed, compassionate understanding of childhood trauma and many of its effects. This is more important than searching for people in specific occupations. For instance while legal representation is desirable, it does not appear essential in the sense that a panel decision could be referred for checking to a legal team afterwards for any possible legal problems.

I am also rather concerned that if I am correct there is very limited or even a lack of opportunity for face to face interaction. Again, for survivors of abuse simply receiving a letter, particularly if it is a rejection or the need for an appeal can heighten all kinds of anxieties and memories of similar ways of dealing with monumental issues and this needs to be supplemented, both with the offer of face to face interaction, and “plugging into” existing trauma therapy services.

Checking and investigation issues

LBI states that it wishes to make this fixed payment available to eligible applicants who satisfy the criteria of the scheme, without the level of investigation and analysis, or evidential standard of proof, required in  civil compensation claims. It does not involve the same  investigation and analysis as civil compensation claims, and does not seek to and will not determine any issue of fault, negligence or legal liability.

Whilst contemporaneous information or material may establish that a survivor was in care or at a given children’s home, it will seldom contain any indication or record of abuse. The survivor’s own account will be the key material in relation to this.  The scheme wishes to facilitate support payments rather than present ‘obstacles to be overcome’ through an adversarial process. It does not require or adopt such a standard of proof. It requires only that there be credible information and/or material of an applicant’s eligibility. (My emphasis)

These are sensitive, humane and realistic targets, and a welcome acceptance that often there will not be written documentation or confirmation of abuse in official records. It is also obvious at the same time that in order to prevent fraud, there must be reasonable means of ensuring the person was actually at the care facility or facilities they claim to have attended.

However, apart from this the degree of checking listed seems out of step, sometimes considerably so, with the stated aims above and the agreed limitations on standards of proof. Here is the substantial list I have extracted:

Confirmation checks by ISP · Marriage records · Address verification · Bank account linked to address · Bank account not submitted previously · Fake/forged material · Media checks adverse information · HM Treasury Sanctions check · Intelligence data base adverse information · Representative checks, power of attorney, court order, appointed carer.

Confirmation checks by LBI · Council tax base · Housing benefits · Housing records · Electoral role · Direct payments · LBI sanction check.

Any record of alleged abuser [databank] · Any ‘similar fact’ accounts from other survivors [databank] · Any relevant investigations or prosecutions [databank] · Any corroboration third parties.

Apart from wondering how long such a detailed process might take officials to complete, I am very unclear about the reason many of these checks are considered necessary at all.  They also appear to include issues such as benefits sanctioning which critics of that practice from a range of parties and bodies would consider a cruel and unjustifiable policy of central Government leaving people on benefits with insufficient income to live on, rather than anything for which the individual should be in any way judged or penalised.

If all these checks listed are insisted upon, it would be  important to explain in the council’s documents why each one is necessary, and for what purpose it is being investigated. However you may consider some or many of these are unnecessary in order to conform with the aims of your scheme in respect of proof.

One phrase I believe should be removed. This concerns ‘Account from applicant: consider overall impression‘. (my emphasis). This is a riskily vague phrase, opening the distinct possibility of bias or prejudice in the reader.

Checking and new information in the appeals process

The suggestion that when applications are refused and passed for appeal, that survivors should be given only 28 days to bring fresh evidence to appeal appears extremely brief and also unrealistic. This is likely to retraumatise survivors involved and cause them huge anxiety. If the evidence has not already proved sufficient to satisfy the panel which refused the case, it is likely to be even more time consuming to find additional information or evidence. In my view a considerably longer period should be allowed to gather any extra information required, and support and “knowhow” from Islington Survivors Network should be sought in this search.

Criminal convictions and adverse issues

To quote: The scheme does not exclude applicants with criminal convictions. LBI does, however, reserve its right to decline an application where there is evidence that the applicant has/has had links to a terrorist organisation, organised crime, murder, manslaughter or paedophilia, which are referred to collectively as adverse issues and it would in all the circumstances be unconscionable for LBI to make a payment under the scheme.

The Council, however, also states correctly that victims and survivors of CSA have been found to be more likely to have contact with the police, and to be charged with a criminal offence, than those who have not experienced CSA. Research indicates that adverse childhood experiences can lead to situations such as criminal activity or becoming a victim of abuse or exploitation. The Council states clearly in its equalities considerations that there will be “a need to ensure….strategies are in place that recognise the impact of institutional childhood abuse in a way that does not adversely affect the outcome for potential applicants”.

However, both through research findings and as an interviewer of prisoners abused in childhood, I am aware that It is not only minor offences, and the very common involvement which drink or drugs to reduce such as flashbacks and nightmares, with which survivors of abuse are more likely than non-survivors to have been charged. They may have been enveigled, forced or threatened as young people into more serious criminal activity, including organised crime, by abusers themselves, who have found this a useful blackmail weapon for keeping them silent. These may include sexually- related crimes, as is apparent from our greater information and understanding now about child sexual exploitation rings in England, and how they use abused children to recruit more victims.

Vulnerable and isolated children may be attracted to – and even join for a certain time – an extremist organisation. Sexually and physically abused children may act out on other children, without full awareness of the implications or why they are doing it. Many male survivors in particular become so full of anger that they lash out violently, sometimes indiscriminately at stages of their lives, and are then convicted of violent crimes which for some, especially when young men, have even resulted in death.

Thus it will be very important when considering exclusions for more serious offences to look at how long ago these were committed, to ask the survivor about the circumstances at the time, and to consider how they have managed their lives subsequently.

There is indeed an argument for saying that no crime committed after survivors’ experience of care should prevent this support payment, since they do not alter nor reduce the suffering they endured as children. I appreciate however that the Council has to consider public / media opinion and possible outrage in certain cases where serious crimes have been committed. But I believe that for equity there cannot and should not be any hard exclusion rule about any single, named type of crime; that the Council should clarify the exact meaning it attaches to the word “unconscionable” as its reason for refusing payment; and that the circumstances of each disputed case should always be decided on an individual and humane basis.

 

This concludes my comments, which I hope prove helpful to the Council along with others gleaned during the Consultation.

 

(Dr) Sarah Nelson    30/5/21

Sarah.Nelson@ed.ac.uk

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