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Racism and the Lambeth Redress Scheme; what will we learn from IICSA

Alison Millar, head of the abuse team at Leigh Day, discusses the role racial injustice and institutional racism may have played in the incidence of abuse amongst black children in Lambeth Council children's homes as the IICSA hears evidence of past abuse in care, where black children made up a disproportionate percentage.

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Alison Millar is a partner at Leigh Day and head of the firm’s abuse team. She represents survivors of child abuse and campaigns for reform in order to safeguard children and vulnerable adults. Follow Alison on twitter at @AllymMillar.
This week, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has been hearing evidence on the widespread abuse of children in homes run by Lambeth Council.

We have been following these hearings with interest, as we have assisted over 30 clients to make applications to the Lambeth Children’s Homes Redress Scheme, which was set up by Lambeth Council in response to calls from campaigners to make redress to those who survived and/ or feared abuse and neglect in the Borough’s children’s homes.

The remit of IICSA is restricted to the investigation of the sexual abuse of children in care, but it is our view that there is no hard and fast dividing line between sexual abuse and other forms of abuse in terms of the experience of victims and survivors.

We therefore welcome the words of Rachel Langdale QC on behalf of the Inquiry in her opening statement on Monday:

“We are conscious that sexual abuse cannot be separated from other themes which will emerge from the evidence, including, but not limited to, the anguish of separation from siblings, racism, fear, the paucity of leaving care provision and the lost opportunity to fulfil each child’s promise.”

The global uprising following the recent murder of George Floyd has brought issues of racial injustice in all walks of life into the forefront of public consciousness and thinking. All clients from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds whom we have assisted to apply to the Lambeth Redress Scheme have reported experiencing racist abuse in Lambeth care.

It is clear to us that racist abuse of children in the care of Lambeth was widespread and we believe and hope that IICSA will investigate these issues which our clients believe were symptomatic of a system which was institutionally racist at every level. During the first three days of hearings, IICSA heard evidence that black children in Lambeth were disproportionately taken into care.

Figures from 1980 show that 40% of children in the borough were black, but black children made an average of 55% of children in Lambeth’s residential care and were more likely to remain in long term care.

Although the reasons for this have not yet been examined in evidence, research by the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association has suggested that there is some evidence that Lambeth Council discriminated against black families in the allocation of housing which resulted in black children being removed disproportionately from their families and taken into care.

Evidence was also heard about the racist language and attitudes of staff, the total disregard by Lambeth staff for the particular needs of black children (for example a refusal to provide adequate care for black children’s skin and hair) and about the racially motivated sexual, physical and psychological abuse of black children.

Evidence of racism at Shirley Oaks, Lambeth’s biggest children’s home, was cited from some of the earliest records available, which shows that a number of house parents in the 1960s refused to care for black children. Evidence was heard that in 1991 senior staff observed that Lambeth’s management of care homes was “against the interests of children and black children in particular”.

When making statements to the police investigation in 1999, survivors referred to race and racism being both a barrier to their disclosure of abuse and part of the abuse they experienced in care. The cumulative exposure to racial discrimination has been shown to have a “corrosive effect” on the mental health of ethnic minority people in the UK.

In his opening statement to the Inquiry, Imran Khan QC, representing a number of individual survivors who are core participants in the Lambeth Council investigation, included an examination of the theme of racism in the Lambeth care system. He highlighted the terrible impact of racism on young people in care and called for redress for children racially abused in the care of Lambeth to be tailored accordingly, as “it is an injustice to the thousands of black children in care who endured racist abuse to view their trauma as simply an added extra”.

Currently the Lambeth Redress Scheme allows the award of aggravated damages in addition to a basic award of compensation where the manner in which the abuse has been committed or the motive for the abuse has upset or outraged the individual. In practice this is applied as a 10% uplift where an applicant has been shown to have suffered abuse as a result of their race, religion, disability, nationality or sexual orientation.

We are in agreement that this is an insufficient recognition by Lambeth Council of the profound impact of decades of institutionalised racist abuse on black and ethnic minority children in their care. It is our view that racist abuse should be viewed as a separate category of abuse in both Lambeth Redress Scheme and civil damages claims and compensated accordingly, in recognition of the profoundly damaging impact that institutionalised racist abuse had on the mental health, self-esteem and life chances of young people in Lambeth’s care.

In their own oral evidence to the enquiry this week, Alex Verdan QC on behalf of Lambeth Council acknowledged that “Lambeth also recognises that children from black and ethnic minority communities suffered disproportionately” in Lambeth’s care.

We are aware through our broader abuse law practice that experiences of institutionalised racism and racially motivated sexual and physical abuse are were not unique to children in the care of Lambeth, and It is clear that there is much to reflect upon for many institutions from the evidence now being heard at the Inquiry.

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