Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Child Abuse Goes on Too Long



Two children were systematically raped, starved and beaten for years by wicked paedophiles. They say they were failed by the system, by those they turned to for help. Now, with their abusers finally behind bars, they feel they’re being let down all over again. Special report by Adam Wakelin.

A teenage brother and sister who suffered almost four years of horrific sexual abuse want a full and open inquiry into their case.

The Leicestershire children say lessons must be learned so other youngsters can be better protected from evil paedophiles.

They have accused Leicestershire County Council of using an ongoing internal review – which will not be made public – to cynically cover-up a catalogue of alleged failures that left them in the clutches of their abusive step-father Mark Thomas and his brother, Paul Thomas.

"I'll always remember thinking 'Please get us away. Please get us out'. But they never did," said the girl, now 16, who like her 15-year-old brother, cannot be named for legal reasons.

They decided to speak out after a senior council official stated the aim of its review was "not to point the finger", but to "highlight the excellent practices of our staff".

That comment left the youngsters feeling they were being let down all over again.

Detective Constable Andy Spence conducted the investigation that finally put their abusers behind bars.

"I worked this case for four years and I know pretty much everything that's in the files," he said. "A lot of concerns were raised by different agencies, but those kids weren't removed.

"It came out in the trial that these children weren't exaggerating. Everything they spoke about was proven to be true.

"The children have lots of concerns and it is down to someone to address those concerns."

Jan Slater, the council's head of service for children in care, said the review would look at what social services could do better and what had been done well.

She defended the decision not to make the findings public.

"It is not about naming and shaming," she said. "It is about learning lessons in hindsight."

The girl first told a nursery nurse that her daddy had hurt her on the bed in 1999. The nurse informed social services.

Neighbours, a head teacher, a housing officer and health professionals also raised concerns about the children's safety to the authorities.

Yet Leicestershire Social Services did not get the children out of their squalid Ibstock home until November 2002 – three years and 10 months after the first allegation of abuse was made.

The girl and her brother were systematically raped, starved and beaten by Mark and Paul Thomas.

Both were jailed for 18 years last month after being convicted of a string of sex crimes against the youngsters.

Their birth mother, Alyson Mepham, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years after admitting cruelty by neglect.

The court heard that the "fear and cruelty" started in 1999 and continued until 2002 – despite the fact that social services had been informed of the childrens' desperate plight.

The youngsters were made to see Mepham and Mark Thomas at a child-parent contact centre, even after they went to live with their foster parents. Mepham and Thomas used those visits to try to force the children to keep secret what had been done to them.

The youngsters told social services what was happening, but the visits were allowed to continue.

The children believe they were failed again and again by social services after they were taken into care.

Yet the authority's review, limited in its scope, will not investigate any of those concerns.

The youngsters claim that Jennifer Johnson, the council's allegations manager who is conducting the review, told them that the authority owed them "a huge apology" and that social services "had a lot to answer for".

Yet Walter McCulloch, the assistant director of the council's children's and young people's service, has publicly stated: "Our social workers have done a really good job in this case."

"This is just not right," said the 15-year-old boy.

The council said it could not comment on what Ms Johnson allegedly said to the children at this stage, adding: "This will be addressed within her report."

The Thomas brothers roamed free for nine years after the children were taken into care.

Police have not ruled out the possibility that they went on to prey on other youngsters.

That would have not been allowed to happen if the allegations against them had been properly dealt with by social services, said the children – another reason why a full inquiry is so necessary.

They want independent inspectors from Ofsted to scrutinise the findings. Ofsted told the Mercury it can only do so if a Serious Case Review into what happened to the youngsters is launched by the Leicestershire and Rutland Local Safeguarding Children Board.

A spokesperson for the board – made up of health, police and social services representatives – said it could only carry out such a review when abuse and neglect was thought to have been a factor in a child's death.

Ms Slater said the authority's internal review would be impartial.

It was "unfortunate" if the comments made by a council spokesman suggested otherwise, she said. And the review, was "certainly not intended to be tokenism or anything of that nature."

The authority would take the findings seriously, she promised, and act on them.

Special report:

Ben still sleeps with his bedroom door open. That's where they did it to him, you see, in his old bedroom. Where his step-father and his Uncle 'Taffy' raped Ben when he was four years old.

It was different with his sister. They usually took Amanda downstairs and abused her on the sofa. That's probably why she always goes to bed with the door locked.

They think so, anyway.

Ben, 15 now, shakes his head and stares into the distance. So much of what happened to him and Amanda, 16, at the hands of Mark Thomas and his brother Paul – Uncle Taffy – defies comprehension.

The hardest thing for them to understand is not how or why it happened, but how it was allowed to go on happening. For years. Again and again. As their weight fell and their bruises spread.

As they went to school covered in filth and head-lice, stinking of stale urine, stealing food from their classmates because they were starving.

As the concerned calls from a head teacher, neighbours, a housing officer and others to Leicestershire social services mounted up.

No normal rules applied inside that house of horrors in Ibstock. None.

Ben and Amanda were assaulted, starved, beaten and forced to urinate in their bedrooms.

Their mother, Alyson Mepham, turned a blind eye.

Her other three children, the sons she had with Mark Thomas, played downstairs, while Amanda and Ben, kept caged behind a specially made iron gate, were used and abused by the brothers for their sick sexual gratification.

All this went on while the authorities apparently shuffled their feet.

Ben and Amanda want a full inquiry, with its findings made public, to answer the question of how that could have happened – and be reassured it can't happen again.

Leicestershire County Council owes them that, they believe.

Lots of other people – their foster parents, their barrister and the police officer who investigated the abuse – agree.

The council thinks otherwise.

Its review will not investigate many of the alleged mistakes made by social services and its findings will not be open to public scrutiny.

"It is not standard practice ... because social workers are faced with criticism and exposure all the time," says Jan Slater, the council's head of service for children in care.

"We need to look really carefully about what we put in the public domain. If issues emerge of a serious nature they will be fully dealt with."

Amanda was four years old when her nursery nurse raised concerns with social services.

The little girl had a sore vagina. She told the nursery nurse that her daddy had hurt her bottom on the bed.

At first, Mepham and Mark Thomas blamed Amanda's birth father. When it was established he hadn't seen the little girl for 18 months, the couple told another threadbare lie.

It must have happened when Thomas was bouncing her up and down on the bed, they said.

That was in February 1999.

The children were not taken into care until November 2002, three years and 10 months later.

"I would sit there every time the social worker came, hoping they might take me out of there. That went on for years" says Amanda.

It gets worse.

The official blindness to their plight – much of it beyond the scope of the council's ongoing review that is concerned only with events before November 2002 – went on and on.

Even when they were in care, the children couldn't escape the evil clutches of Mepham and Thomas.

They were made to see them at a child contact centre.

Amanda and Ben didn't want to go. They begged and pleaded.

Mepham and Thomas used the visits to try to terrorise the children into not talking about the abuse they had inflicted upon them.

The children told social services. Social services told them to make a signal to the contact supervisor when it happened. Nothing more was done.

The council won't allow that obvious, terrible failure to even be investigated.

It won't investigate why a social worker always insisted to talking to Ben in his bedroom – an upsetting place for him to be with any adult in the circumstances.

This wasn't a case of a clever, manipulative, seemingly normal mum and dad pulling the wool over social workers' eyes. They were aggressive and abusive. Their council house was so filthy that contractors downed tools when they were brought in to clean it up.

The children were left with the belief that nothing would happen if they told someone official about the abuse.

That the children had the courage to put their abusers behind bars is truly remarkable.

Paul and Mark Thomas were each jailed for 18 years last month. Mepham was given a two-and-a-half year sentence after admitting cruelty by neglect.

Ben and Amanda aren't their victims' real names. They can't be published for legal reasons.

The two teenagers have already waived some of their rights to complete anonymity, so that their abusers can be identified.

They did it because they want everyone to see what those squalid, pathetic excuses for human beings look like.

That's important, and not just to them.

"Other children can know who they are and come forward if they've ever done anything to them," says Amanda.

"They can report them or at least know they will never be hurt again."

That horrific possibility hasn't been ruled out by Leicestershire police.

The Thomas brothers went free for nine years after Ben and Amanda were taken into care. They had a string of addresses up and down the country; ample opportunities to prey on more children.

Detective Constable Andy Spence built the case that put them behind bars.

Without Ben and Amanda there wouldn't have been a case. Their decision to give up some of their anonymity is typical of their courage.

"I've never met braver kids," says Det Con Spence "This investigation ran for four years which is a really long time.

"They spoke about some of most horrific personal things someone can go through.

"They gave evidence in court for two days each. That's a long time to be sat in a witness box being asked really tough questions."

Fun. That's the word Ben uses to describe what it was like to see his abusers sent to prison for 18 years.

"It was fun, fun to watch their faces," he says, smiling. "They were unbelievable, like they had just eaten the worst toxic waste possible."

"You wouldn't treat a dog like they treated us," says Amanda.

"Except they did, didn't they?" adds her brother. "They did have a dog, and it died."

Amanda inches a little closer to her foster dad.

"If we hadn't got out we wouldn't be alive today," she says. "I really do believe that."

We're sitting in the lounge of Ben and Amanda's foster parents' house. We'll call them Angie and Don, for legal reasons already explained.

The contrast between this life and their past one couldn't be more stark.

This is a happy family home. Don and Angie, described as "saints" by the judge in the court case, have love for these kids coming out of their ears.

They dote on Amanda and Ben, who swap little embarrassed looks as Mum and Dad go on about how well they're doing in school and every other aspect of their lives.

"We don't class them as our foster kids," says Don. "They're our family and that's the end of it.

"We're so proud of them. We couldn't be more proud."

Amanda and Ben came to live with Don and Angie in January 2003.

The children were on their fourth foster family in six weeks. No-one could cope with those two desperately troubled children.

Six-year-old Ben was still in pull-up nappies.

He and his sister, so used to being starved, would gorge on food until they made themselves sick.

Angie's eyes swim with tears. "They didn't know anything of life," she says. "They didn't know what birthdays or Christmas were. Birthdays and Christmas petrified them. They'd never had anything, you see."

The children were taken into care on the grounds of neglect.

Don and Angie, who had fostered abused youngsters before, saw signs that made them fear the worst.

Ben went into hysterics when Don tried to get him to drink some apple juice one day. He thought it was alcohol.

Only later did they discover that Uncle Taffy would ply the little boy with booze before he abused him. Perhaps he thought it would make him forget.

Ben never forgot. He didn't tell because Uncle Taffy had scared him too much, but he never forgot.

There were other things too that unsettled Don and Angie.

The kids would play up whenever the couple had guests. Why? Because a houseful of grown-ups laughing and being noisy used to be followed by something else, the hateful footsteps of daddy or Uncle Taffy on the stairs. Getting closer. Coming for them.

It took a long time for the children, in hour upon hour of videotaped interviews with Det Con Spence, to join up all those disparate dots.

Finding the words to say what had happened to them was hard, especially for Ben. Eventually, thanks to the policeman's care and endless patience, he summoned the courage to open up.

The truth, so slow to fully emerge, began with a blurt.

It was May or June 2003, remembers Angie. The couple had some builders in, working on their home.

They were typical builders; lots of loud noise covered in dirt. Ben, as young lads are prone do, was always getting under their feet.

Amanda was different – "a bag of nerves".

She wouldn't go near the men in the muddy overalls. Angie tried to get her to give them a plate of bacon sandwiches. That's when she started crying.

It came out in coughing sobs, what her step-father and Uncle Taffy had done to her.

Angie just sat there, numb.

Ben heard it all.

"What are you crying for?" he asked. "They did the same to me, but I'm not crying. I'm building."

Other police officers were involved in the investigation before Det Con Spence.

Angie can't fault them, but the case seemed to be going nowhere before Andy came along. He was like a dog with a bone, digging and digging, determined not to let it go.

Det Con Spence first interviewed the children in 2007.

Then he started on a paper trail.

He pulled every document all the different agencies had ever filed on the dangerously dysfunctional family from Ibstock and laboriously worked his way through them.

There was more than evidence of neglect. Det Con Spence found all sorts of allegations and concerns that had been reported by neighbours, a head teacher and health and welfare professionals over the years.

He then set about tracing and interviewing them all. It was an arduous task. Many had moved or retired.

Det Con Spence's paedophile inquiry mutated into several missing persons' cases. Promising leads disappeared down dispiriting cul-de-sacs. But he kept going.

"Myself and a colleague went to France for five days to track down one witness," he remembers. "We ended up interviewing about 70 witnesses."

Mark Thomas had long since split from Aylson Mepham. Their other children had been adopted.

The brothers had lived rootless, almost itinerant lives since then.

Both have common names, so trying to work out where they were – and, just as crucially, where they had been – wasn't easy.

Paul Thomas was back close to home, in Mowmacre Hill, when the police caught up with him. Mark Thomas was in Scarborough. Mepham lived in Coalville.

The brothers weren't clever, but they were cunning.

"They tried to make themselves look stupider than they really were," says Det Con Spence.

"Paul came across as thick, but he admitted to playing sudoku. It takes some intelligence to do that."

They lied through their teeth, first to the police and then the court.

Evidence assembled by the police allowed prosecution barrister Mary Prior to drive a coach and horses through their cover stories and false alibis.

So much, however, still depended on Amanda and Ben.

A week before the trial, a social worker is alleged to have told Amanda that she and her brother would have to leave their foster home when they turned 18.

It was a devastating thing to say to a girl on the eve of such an ordeal. The judge would later criticise social services on the manner in which they "assisted" the children to prepare for the trial.

Amanda and Ben each gave evidence for two days from behind a curtain in the court. They didn't have to see their abusers, but they knew they were there.

Ben remembers a cough. He recognised it even after all those years, Uncle Taffy's cough. It took him back, clear as day, to the horrors of his childhood. But he didn't falter. He told the jury how it was.

Amanda did the same.

"A lot of people were crying," says Det Con Spence. "I certainly became upset hearing them relive the graphic details of what they went through."

The brothers did what cornered animals always do. They turned on one another, not denying the abuse any more, but blaming one another.

It was one of the toughest cases Det Con Spence has ever worked on. Half the court were in tears when the guilty verdicts were announced.

The verdicts meant Amanda and Ben didn't have to look over their shoulders anymore.

It was always there before, the gnawing fear that one day they might turn a corner on a street and see Uncle Taffy or his brother standing there.

Not now. No-one's going to be seeing them for a long time.

And besides, their abusers don't seem so scary any more. Not after they were shown up for what they are. Not after Ben saw those looks on their faces.

"They got what they deserved," he says. "That feels good."

In court Paul Thomas admitted introducing Alyson to his brother Mark. It was he who knew the mother first, he who introduced her to his brother.

Mepham pleaded guilty to cruelty by neglect. Her children will never forgive her.

"It was good seeing her go to prison," says Amanda. "She's disgusting. No normal mother would have let us go through that. We were her firstborns. She should have looked after us and she didn't."

The same allegation can be leveled at Leicestershire's social services.

Walter McCulloch, assistant director of the children and young people's service, gave a comment about the ongoing internal council review that was published in this newspaper two weeks ago.

He said: "Our social workers did a really good job in this case."

Det Con Spence read that.

"I had to have a little chuckle," he says.

The policeman knows this case better than anyone. He's spent four years with it and he's interviewed everyone connected with it.

It strikes him as a little strange that the council seems to be patting itself on the back before its review – that will never come under public scrutiny – is even finished.

Cynics will suspect a can of whitewash has already been opened.

"It was obvious to us, the people investigating, and obvious to the court (that abuse was going on). So why was it not obvious back then?" asks Det Con Spence. "That's one of the things the children really struggle with.

"I think presumed conclusions can be worrying."

The council's head of service for children in care, Jan Slater, insists that the review will be thorough and impartial.

"It's about providing a balanced response. Some of the things we did right and properly," she says. "There are question marks about the time it took (to get the children into care). It is not about naming and shaming, it's about social services learning lessons in hindsight. It's about what we could do better, but also about things that were done well."

If the children raise specific concerns that are outside the current scope of the review, they may be looked at separately, says Ms Slater.

Foster mum Angie remains unconvinced: "I think the council is trying to sweep this under the carpet," she says.

Amanda and Ben just want answers – honest, impartial answers.

"We want to know why we were left in that house for so long," says Amanda. "We want a full independent inquiry."

Because of the sensitive and disturbing nature of this article we took the unusual step of showing it to the children and their foster parents before it was published.