Originally published at the Church Times.
An interview with the Anglican priest who ran Kent social services at the time of the Kendall House children’s-home scandal shines a light on the culture that allowed children to be mistreated and abused in the 1970s and ‘80s.
The priest, the Revd Nick Stacey, who died earlier this year, was the director of Kent County Council’s social services from 1974 to 1985.
At that time, staff at Kendall House, Gravesend, a Church of England-run children’s home in Kent, were drugging, straitjacketing, and physically and sexually abusing vulnerable girls. The ordeals of dozens of young women came to light last year after an independent report found that Kendall House had “normalised” cruelty.
A recorded interview that Mr Stacey gave for an oral-history project in 2006 is now held by the British Library. In it, he explains how his policy was never to report staff who had been accused of abuse to the police, because he believed that children could be “incredibly manipulative” and make such stories up.
In the course of a wide-ranging discussion, he describes his approach to managing social services.
“The other thing that I had was that nobody was to go to the police about accusations against staff without my approval,” he says. “And it is incredible the way times have changed. I could never begin to do that now, but children, especially children in care, are incredibly manipulative.”
Many accusations of abuse from children in care were invented to make trouble for care-home staff, he believed. “[Children] come back [late] at six or seven o’clock, probably either having sex in the churchyard with somebody or stealing at Marks & Spencer’s or both. And [the staff] would say, ‘You’re to go to bed without supper.’
“The kids would go into supper, the child would creep down and telephone Childline, saying, ‘I’m being abused.’”
Mr Stacey tells the interviewer with pride that he “never once” went to the police, because there was never a “serious case” worth reporting.
In reality, while he was responsible for all social services in Kent, girls at Kendall House were “caught in a regime that, in many ways, sought to rob them of their individuality, of hope, and in some cases of their liberty”, the independent report says.
Girls as young as 11 were routinely, and sometimes without any medical assessment, given antidepressants, sedatives, and anti-psychotic medication, and others were put in straitjackets or sent to a local adult mental hospital. There were at least two incidents of rape while girls were put in isolation as a punishment, as well as several pregnancies and cases of self-harming.
Those whose task was to oversee the Kendall House girls’ well-being “demonstrated little curiosity, challenge or questioning”, the report alleges.
Teresa Cooper, a Kendall House survivor, said that Mr Stacey’s interview was “startling” and would have “huge” ramifications.
A BBC Radio 4 investigation found that Ms Cooper, whose interventions ultimately led to the independent review of abuse at Kendall House, was drugged at least 1248 times in just 32 months at the institution.
She went on to give birth to three children, all of whom have birth defects. In 2010, the Church reached an out-of-court financial settlement with Ms Cooper.
“I am deeply disappointed and I feel let down once again. There might potentially be hundreds of allegations and victims facing the serious consequences of injustice based on the unfounded judgement of those meant to protect children,” she said in response to the Stacey recording.
“I call for an investigation into the practices of Mr Stacey during his leadership as director to Kent social services.”
Despite noting with pride that there were no “scandals” in Kent under his watch, Mr Stacey admits during the 2006 interview that he did on occasion force some care-home workers to resign and put their names on an “at risk” register.
“I would try and get them to go to counselling,” he said. “I actually fundamentally think that to put these people . . . Terribly sad if you’re sexually orientated towards children, you know, and it is a . . . So that was one thing.”
However, if “rampant abuse” on the scale of some Roman Catholic scandals had emerged, he would have gone to the police, Mr Stacey says.
He also recounts the story of how one care home worker hit a child “very hard” and was reported to the police. Mr Stacey ensured that the man got a high-flying QC to defend him and personally gave evidence in court in his defence.
“I went to court and I said ‘You’ve got no idea how these children wind care staff up. We expect care staff with small pay to look after some of the most . . . — admittedly tragically deprived, it’s not their fault that they wind people up — and they’re aggressive and somebody loses their cool and they do hit somebody once.’ I got [him] off.”
Mr Stacey became well-known as the Rector of Woolwich in the 1960s after writing in the press about the “failure” of strenuous efforts to attract working-class people into his congregation. He later left stipendiary parish ministry, and was deputy director of Oxfam before moving into social work, first in Ealing, and then in Kent.
Among the much copied innovations he made in the county were professional fostering for troubled teenagers, and care in the community for the elderly, instead of putting them in homes.