On Friday 23 February 2001 Mr Justice Hughes in the family division of the high court of justice handed down in open court two edited judgements in care proceedings brought by Essex CC in respect of children in the care of Jeanette Roberts.
Aware of the considerable public interest in this matter Essex CC took the unusual step of applying for the judgements to be published. Today after hearing arguments on behalf of Jeanette Roberts opposing Essex CC's application, the judge decided in favour of publication.
Jeanette Roberts has cared for other people's children for over 30 years. She has in that time cared for upwards of 80 children and vulnerable adults and adopted no less than 36 children. In 1985 she moved to The Old Convent at Bicknacre in Essex and prior to that lived in London.
In 1997/8 Essex social services and Essex Police received serious allegations about the treatment of children and adults in the care of Jeanette Roberts. This included allegations raised by a journalist. In total complaints were received from 30 individuals about their own treatment.
A large number of ex residents and others gave detailed statements about the conduct of the household.
- physical abuse
- undue influence on children to control what they said to social workers visiting
- undue influence on children to make false allegations of abuse by their natural families
- pressure to conform to an ethos of total loyalty
- obstruction of relationships with natural parents
Action of Essex social services (together with other agencies)
Against this background, interagency child protection procedures were used to plan how to deal with these very serious allegations. These matters were discussed at the highest level within Essex CC and, given the gravity of the concern, the final decision in respect in respect of Essex CC was taken by the Director of Essex social services, Michael Leadbetter.
On 26 November 1998 in a joint operation between Essex Police and Essex social services, five adults were arrested and a total of 12 children were removed from the care of Jeanette Roberts. In addition, 14 vulnerable adults were offered support.
Care proceedings under the Children Act 1989 were pursued in respect of six children aged 17 months to 12 years on removal.
The remaining six were young people aged 16/17 years and therefore continuing proceedings under the Children Act were inappropriate. Some chose to return to the Old Convent while others wished to continue to receive support from Essex social services.
The court proceedings ran until July 2000. After hearing extensive evidence the judge concluded that one of the six children was suffering significant harm as a result of the care they had received.
The judge also concluded that the other five children had not suffered significant harmyet but that if there were no changes in the way they were looked after, were likely to do so in the future in some but not all of the ways alleged.
The high court made final decisions about their care in May 2000 deciding that on balance three children should not return to the care of Jeanette Roberts and three should.
Michael Leadbetter, director of Essex social services, said: 'Having received very serious allegations about the care of children and vulnerable people at the Old Convent, Essex social services was obliged by law to investigate these thoroughly and place the evidence before a court for consideration. Anything less would in my view have been a dereliction of my duty of care to children and young people.
'The judge comments in his judgement that any local authority would have been failing in its duty if it had not mounted a full investigation.
'The judge found that one of the children had suffered significant harm and that the other five were likely to do so in the future unless there were changes in the way they were looked after. This emphasises the importance of the action we took to protect these children.
'The judge said that the ethos of the household brought benefits but at too high a price in harm to several of the young people.
'Essex CC welcomes the publication of this judgement as it allows all county council members, other professionals and the public to have access to information on which to form a balanced view.
'The public are rightly concerned that vulnerable people who cannot live with their birth families are supported and protected. Equally they are right to be concerned that the local authority is not interfering in situations without appropriate cause. I am entirely satisfied that the harm which had been caused and the risk of harm to children justified Essex CC's intervention in this complex case.'