By Sarah Nelson

THIRTY years ago today, police and social workers carried out “dawn raids” on four family homes on South Ronaldsay, Orkney, and took away nine children under Place Of Safety Orders.

These orders cited group sexual activity, including “ritualistic music, dancing and dress”.

All the families were “incomers”: three were middle-class professionals. Police questioned the parents and a church minister.

But what were the events that had led to these dramatic 7am raids? In late 1990, a teenager from a large, disadvantaged family – known only as the “W” family – on South Ronaldsay, whose father was jailed for physically and sexually assaulting them, accused her bothers and a clergyman of sexual abuse.

Seven younger “W” siblings were taken into care; three, separately, began talking and drawing about sexual abuse of children by groups of adults and strange, occult outdoor rituals.

They named many adults and children, including the clergyman and the four families whose children were “lifted” in February 1991.

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After the early morning raids the parents and a local doctor launched a major campaign to have the children returned – winning huge support from many media, public and religious organisations and leading to the case becoming a cause celebre.

Meanwhile, the nine children were interviewed several times by police and staff from the Royal Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSSPCC). Through interviews, but particularly through bizarre words, chants, drawings and behaviour in front of foster parents, several children seemed to confirm certain aspects of the “W” children’s accounts.

These are fully documented in Lord Clyde’s inquiry report, along with evidence that two children did not want to return home. In April, l991, Sheriff David Kelbie held a proof hearing at which he called the case “fatally flawed” and dismissed it without hearing the evidence.

For this, Scotland’s senior judge, Lord Hope, said the damage he did was “incalculable”. After six weeks the children were returned home in a blaze of international publicity.

No-one was prosecuted and the parents later received financial compensation. The Government set up a public inquiry headed by Lord Clyde to examine the authorities’ actions and make recommendations – not to ask if any children were at risk.

His report, published in October 1992, found officials acted in good faith but severely criticised their handling of the case, prompting him to make almost 200 good-practice recommendations.

They covered the investigation, removal into care, children’s rights, treatment of foster carers, training and interviewing of children.

These influenced the Children (Scotland) Act l995 in areas such as changes in child protection orders and tightening of their conditions.

There’s no doubt police and social workers acted precipitately and, along with the RSSPCC, deserved criticism of their practice.

Centrally, they removed children without corroboration of disturbing information they had, then questioned them – instead of conducting a lengthy, careful investigation and carrying out surveillance. This is unlikely ever to happen again.

However, in other ways, the Orkney fallout has been far less child-centred.

The spectre of a huge scandal involving respectable families, magnified by disinformation, dealt a hammer blow to child protection social work.

Dramatic journalism about children snatched from their beds at sunrise painted social workers as cruel monsters, despite the conduct of the raids being one aspect of the case not criticised by Lord Clyde, who said: “The conduct of the workers was efficient and supportive.”

Although police and social workers acted jointly throughout, some right-wing media hostile to social work but supportive of the police painted a lasting image of social work as entirely to blame.

A Christian, basic-grade social worker was even said to have persuaded officials to launch the dawn raids, though he clearly lacked the power or influence to do so.

Some media airbrushed police actions, including their interviewing of children.

The Orkney case had a lasting, intimidatory effect on social work action – in particular, in child sexual abuse (CSA). It was undoubtedly one factor in what has been a continuing decline in its identification through the child protection system and children’s hearings.

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This despite a continuing increase in police reports of sexual assaults against children and the vast growth in online abuse images. Sexual abuse now forms less than five per cent of child protection registrations and of “concerns” at child protection case conferences.

Legislation in 1995 also made it harder to remove children from the home, even with strong evidence of risk or harm.

The 2005 Social Work Inspection Agency report report on the Western Isles analysed the failure to act on 222 concerns about three girls who faced shocking abuse, trafficking, violence and neglect.

It suggested one reason for the prolonged attempt to engage with the family, rather than remove the children, was the new children’s legislation and the aftermath of the Orkney Inquiry.

I also heard numerous social workers, teachers and youth workers over three decades saying they must not ask children about sexual abuse even when serious suspicions existed, because “Lord Clyde said we shouldn’t”. He said no such thing. 

As for sadistic and occult forms of organised abuse, few professionals have been supported by their managers to investigate since.

When disturbing, baffling words and behaviour similar to the Orkney case emerge from troubled young people these are either sidestepped, or third sector organisations familiar with such survivors are slipped a referral.

An elaborate explanation, “the satanic panic”, has ridiculed workers who take occult ritual abuse seriously. Most media accepted this explanation, which still appears on Wikipedia and many websites, even when it came from biased sources like the pagan bookshop newsletters left around the council offices in Kirkwall.

Satanic panic theory, which rejects the reality of satanist abuse, claims that child protection people took on this belief as a fad in the late 1980s, rushing out zealously keen to find it. But that was the opposite of the truth.

Social workers and police didn’t know what on earth this stuff was. Other than the wilder fringes of evangelical Christianity, where Satan is believed to fly low over the fields, no-one could wish to find it.

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No-one in their right mind would want to believe anyone could inflict such horrifying, disgusting, unspeakably cruel tortures on children.

Practitioners also feared for their own safety.

Professionals in child protection need to ask themselves today if a legacy of 30 years of intimidation and watch-your-back is long enough – especially given the disinformation surrounding this case – and find courage to reverse the remarkable trend of child sexual abuse practically disappearing from child protection statistics.

After all, they now pursue more assertive, collaborative policies on child sexual exploitation – often with youngsters previously unprotected from CSA.

The other remaining issue is we don’t know to this day if there was abuse in Orkney. No-one was found innocent, no-one was found guilty. A multi-million pound inquiry and 363-page report never asked the central question.

Evidence has not been tested in any civil or criminal court, nor reassessed via an independent expert report. What I remember most about Orkney is how many agencies fell over themselves to apologise and compensate for giving offence to adults; to distance themselves with unseemly speed from this flawed attempt to protect children; and to insist that they have changed.

Nowt to do with us, guv. That’s what I recall the Orkney community said, too: nothing to do with us. I remember how few people from any agency or church were prepared to say publicly what more said safely in private: “Yes, mistakes were made throughout this investigation, but the evidence was still disturbing and distressing. Children still needed to be monitored for their own protection and other families kept safe, since bad things may have been happening here”.

It does not remove unfinished responsibilities to young people to admit that social workers and police bungled procedures, that a sheriff behaved improperly, that the children’s hearing reporter should not have abandoned the appeal.

There was surely a responsibility to maintain vigilance, so that new evidence could be collected if it existed.

If any children on Orkney did indeed need protection, justice, or restitution 30 years ago, then they are still waiting for it as adults today.

Sarah Nelson is a Research Associate at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh.