By John Robbins
· Police Aspect
· 2nd Career
By way of introduction I served 38 years in the Police Service retiring in August 2000 as Detective Superintendent & Senior Investigating Officer of Operation Care. This was most probably the largest and longest running operation mounted by Merseyside Police as it commenced in 1996 and completed, operationally, in 2001. During that time we examined circa 100 care establishments on Merseyside where historical child abuse had been alleged. Where prosecutions ensued the majority of offenders pleaded guilty to their crimes. Others stood trial resulting in both convictions and acquittals.
Some of you may recall that I addressed ACAL, soon after its inception, at St John’s College, Cambridge University in 1998 outlining the methodology of Operation Care. Reciprocally Peter Garsden addressed a Police National Conference in Cheltenham and advised upon the civil legal process, which necessarily follows such investigations.
Alas, as all good things must come to an end, I decided to “hang up my handcuffs” in August 2000 ensuring that the bulk of the operation was finished, thus leaving my successor to tie up any loose ends. So I was off to what I considered to be a well-earned lazy retirement. Only being in my mid fifties at that time and having spent most of my career at the sharp end that did not sit comfortably so after only eight months I was keen to become active again and started my second career with Abney Garsden McDonald in April, 2001.
I was delighted when Peter Garsden took me on as his legal clerk because I felt safe in the knowledge that I knew child abuse investigations backwards. Of course I did, but now I was really changing horses from the criminal to the civil process. This is an area most Police Officers, including myself, had shyed away from during their policing. There was, therefore a need to be retrained, which was capably fulfilled by Peter coupled with on the job training and full support from all other fee earners at Abney Garsden McDonald, which thankfully persists to this day.
The first thing I recognised and appreciated was that I no longer had a command position, which de-stressed me. I had been in a supervisory capacity in the Police from after only four years service and the age of 23. Such a relief!
Now to the job in hand. I was to be the “on the road” statement taker from the numerous clients of the Child Abuse Department of the firm. Not needing to be in the office on a daily basis it was agreed I would work from home 4 days a week, thus alleviating the stress of rush hour traffic and a 100-mile round trip.
My involvement with these abused victims was now reversed. In my role of Senior Investigating Officer for Operation Care I did not interview such people but read, day after day, their statements taken by my dedicated staff. The only time I actually met any of them was when I attended court in support of the investigation, every time any case came to its final hearing. Now I am meeting them face-to-face and recording details of their abuse but concentrating on the needs of the civil law, which was even more of an eye opener.
I soon learned how to structure my interviews whether in Prisons or client’s homes. I have witnessed grown men crying when reliving their horrible experiences. Even hardened criminals have emotions when they are the victims. Some victims have refused to see me in prison probably to prevent the display of emotion, which may then expose them as vulnerable, particularly if the reason behind such emotion became public. Often abuse victims have told nothing or little about their abuse to loved ones, but having made their statements, sometimes in unusual places such as in my car on a McDonald’s car park, feel relieved and go on to explain to those who care what did happen to them as children which then perhaps explains earlier behaviour between them.
I have interviewed normal happy settled people, drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals and the homeless. Some blame their situation of addiction or criminality on the way they were treated in care. I am not totally convinced of the theory as there is no hard evidence to support it, but who am I to judge? Perhaps their addictions claim may have some substance as they say they crave whatever they can find to block out the memories. Their claim, however, that becoming a criminal was influenced by the abuse is far foggier to me. There must be a PhD for somebody in this field.
My transition from a senior detective to my current role was not without criticism from those who were both against my methods of operation and the ensuing compensation claims. Pressure groups emerged and my relationship with Abney Garsden McDonald was said by some to be symbiotic. I can assure you, and them, that it was not. Whichever profession I represented I did so with professionalism as I am sure Peter would confirm. In my copper’s role we had head to head debates on the needs of my operation versus his then needs in civil law. This ended up in proper written undertakings being drawn up as to what was available to civil lawyers and when that information would be released. Now working within the civil process I comply with those protocols.
Such was the drive of the pressure groups that they managed to convince the MP for Crosby (Merseyside) to push for a hearing by the Parliamentary Select Committee, which was successful. My stance was criticised by them particularly in what has become known as the “Trawling “ method.
I do not like the term “Trawling” as it suggests something fishy is going on. It was not. I introduced a policy of selecting 10 per cent or 50 people (whichever was the greater) from a care establishment to be asked whether they had any complaints or information about their time in care and then acted accordingly. This was borne out of a need to manage resources in the ever growing investigation of Operation Care not, as was often alleged by the pressure groups, to permit my staff to cajole service users to make complaints. I likened what I was doing to investigating say, your house being broken into. You would expect, quite correctly, that I would make house-to-house enquiries in your vicinity. Wasn’t that what I was doing in respect of an allegation of a crime of a different sort?
By the time the Parliamentary Committee sat I had retired and was surprised not to be called to give evidence to them. They reported with a large number of recommendations but no criticism of the Police.
In all I would say I selected a good second career, which has broadened my views on historical child abuse both from the victim’s and perpetrators standpoint. I feel I am still fulfilling a public need brought about by the actions of a small minority of care workers within the care system between 1960’s– 1990’s. Please note I say a small amount of carers as there were, and are, many, many good caring people looking after our children.
As with Operation Care, there was always going to be an end to the investigation over the horizon but we did not know when. The same applies to the civil process but, alas, I feel that is sometime away yet. In saying that I am not so naive to think that no abuse will surface involving children in care. More stringent checks and balances are now in place hopefully to prevent people with abusive tendencies from working in that arena.
John Robbins is a Legal Clerk.
1st April 2005