Pembrokeshire criticised for abuse allegations handling

A report exposing Pembrokeshire council’s failings over child abuse allegations has been described as “deeply disturbing” by Wales’ children’s commissioner.

Keith Towler was reacting to an inquiry – started after a headteacher was convicted of abuse – cited “longstanding and systemic” problems.

Pembrokeshire County Council said it wanted to assure parents it was working tirelessly to ensure children were safe.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Government is sending a team to oversee changes and a helpline has been set up for parents.

The report comes on the same day that Pembrokeshire’s policies and systems for safeguarding children and young people were judged not fit for purpose by schools inspectorate Estyn.

Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) and Estyn started a joint inquiry following 25 cases of alleged professional abuse between 2007 and 2011.

Some of these cases concerned David Thorley, head teacher at a Pembrokeshire primary school, who was convicted and jailed in May 2009 of nine sex assaults against children.

In the joint report, Estyn and CSSIW said: “In three of these [25] cases there was potentially an immediate risk of harm to children.”

It also stated that in some instances “the duty to safeguard children has been outweighed by the consideration of the previous good record of staff” and that the views of the police and social services were ignored.

The report concluded: “That there has been a lack of oversight by elected members and officers, at the most senior level within the authority, of the management and handling of cases of alleged professional abuse in education services.”

Speaking soon after the report was published on Thursday, Mr Towler said: “It is hard to comprehend that an authority managed to fail on so many levels and had clearly lost sight of what was important – the safety of children and young people in its care.

“It seems its senior managers decided to put corporate reputation ahead of anything else and that is completely unacceptable.

Deputy Minister for Social Services Gwenda Thomas said the authority had failed “to deliver basic duties”.

“The Welsh Government is not going to stand by and let this continue,” she said.

“The failings identified in this report are wholly unacceptable and I expect urgent, strong and decisive action by Pembrokeshire County Council to rectify them.”

Pembrokeshire County Council and Dyfed-Powys Police have been asked to review all 25 cases and report findings.

Other findings from the report include:

    Staff made redundant were re-employed without references despite “known concerns”
    School provided false information in a reference for ex-staff member stating they resigned their post when they had been dismissed for sexual misconduct with a young person
    Criminal Records Bureau checks and references not effectively and consistently screened
    Cases that should have been managed as child protection investigations were dealt with as staff development matters
    Senior council officers did not provide elected members with information necessary to ensure they could discharge responsibilities for safeguarding

A statement from Pembrokeshire County Council said four employees have lost their jobs over the last four years, including one headteacher.

Responding to the report, Pembrokeshire council leader John Davies said: “We are not hiding from the matters raised in these reports and I want to assure parents that we are working tirelessly to ensure children are as safe as it is possible to make them.

“There are a number of administrative procedures and processes which require improvement, some of which we have already put in place. Others will take a little longer and we are working on them.”

Coun Huw George, cabinet member for children and young people, said: “It is indicative of the difficulty of dealing with safeguarding issues that this investigation came about as the result of a much-publicised court case and subsequent conviction of a head teacher at a Pembrokeshire school.

“In this case all the available safeguards were in place and the teacher was highly-respected across the entire Welsh education community. Indeed, he had also been appointed by Estyn as one of their registered inspectors.

“There was nothing to suggest to any of us that there was a potential that children could be harmed in this case.”

Pembrokeshire council has set up a telephone helpline for parents and children who may have been affected by issues relating to the allegations of harm or abuse – 01437 776301 open from 0900 BST to 1700 BST Mondays to Fridays.

The report comes on the same day as the publication of a report by Estyn on the quality of local education services for children and young people in Pembrokeshire.

This describes the county’s education services as “unsatisfactory” with “unsatisfactory prospects for improvement”.

He said the separate Estyn report also raised a number of educational issues that the council is already addressing, particularly the need to raise GCSE standards.