Letter sent to Panorama for publication
Dear Editor: I was very distressed but sadly not surprised by the story of "Alex" and her experiences within the care of the Social Services.
In my previous career, as a Police Officer, I had a lot of contact with the Social Services in relation to the protection of young children. In my experience I met some extremely good and caring people in the social services but I unfortunately also met very distasteful people.
I must add that the attitude of the Police, especially Senior Police Officers, to these circumstances were also at times appalling. They buried their heads in the sand and passed the problem over to the Social Services even when it was clear those serious breaches of neglect and cruelty to Children was evident, which by the way was and still is a Criminal Offence.
As a fact in point is that this attitude by some in the Police and the Social Services is exemplified by a case another colleague and I investigated. If you would allow me the space I think it important to relate this case over to your readers.
For a number of months, the Police, had been contacted by concerned members of the public of three children seen to be scrounging bins and retrieving food from then which they would consume immediately. These complaints had been attended by the Police and subsequent reports passed on to the Social Services. I became involved when one of my constables brought it to my attention after attending to such a report. He was suitably concerned that a number of months had gone by and that nothing had been done. I subsequently called my contact at the Social Services who asked to meet me away from the Police Station or the Social Services Agency. When we met in the presence of the constable who carried the investigation with me, the Social Worker explained her concerns in this matter stating that the Social Service Agency was not willing to take this matter forward as although they lived locally they were not local (Gibraltarian). At that point the Social Worker and both of us in the Police decided to take steps and get help to these Children. I approached a senior officer in the Police and informed him of the situation and my intention to investigate the matter. I was flatly told to pass the matter over to the Social Services and forget taking this matter further. I did not agree and the order was "unlawful" as no one can stop a Police Officer from investigating the possible incidence of a crime.
I remember having to wait until I was on night duty (bosses are not around). During the day I spent my time consulting with the Social Worker, the hospital (the children would have to be examined once taken into care) and the Attorney General Chambers who advised on the legal side of the investigation and draw up the "Distress warrant" which allows the Police to remove children from their parents in specific circumstances. This reinforced my resolve and I was deeply grateful for the help and advice received from all quarters. This also proves that there are well meaning, caring and professional people in all walks of our society and professions. I mention this because I do not want to portray the image that everybody in the Police, Hospital or Social Services are uncooperative or unprofessional. There are good people in these organisations, very good people.
My next problem to resolve was the fact that the children needed to be interviewed and statements taken from them and I was not experienced or qualified to do this neither did the Police have the proper facilities to do this. A contact in the Gibraltar Services Police quickly introduced me to a member of the Joint Provost Unit who immediately offered their rape/vulnerable victim suite for our use. This is a flat specifically designed to deal with rape victims and vulnerable witnesses and is equipped with equipment to record statements etc in familiar and comfortable surroundings to the victims. It also has a medical examination room. With all these preparations having been completed my colleague and I went to a Justice of a Peace to have the Distress Warrant signed. Both my colleague and I were questioned for more than an hour by the Justice of the Peace and rightly so as he wanted to make sure that there was sufficient cause to remove these children from their parents and that proper preparation had been made for their care. In the end after commending both my colleague and I,for our efforts, he signed the warrant and asked us to give him a call to let him know of the results of the warrant execution no matter the time.
I would like to add at this point that the Social Worker, the Crown Counsel, my colleague and I had been carrying out all this work during our own time and not whilst on duty.
That evening we executed the warrant and removed three children from their parents aged, 4, 6 and eight. It was ten at night and the children were found to be dirty and sleeping in school uniform. Although there was a double bed in the flat this was occupied by the parents. The eight year old was sleeping in a single sized sofa. The six year old was sleeping on the floor, he did not even have a blanket under him, the two year old slept with an Alsatian dog which was flea ridden. The flat was dirty and all sorts of medication and syringes were lying around and exposed to the children. The kitchen was empty of any food. There was a fridge but there was no food just a couple of beers. A number of empty beer and other alcoholic bottles were strewn everywhere around the flat. There was faeces and urine on the floor of the flat. The children all showed signs of neglect. We removed the children and they were taken by the Social Worker to the hospital to be examined and then they were housed with Social Services. The parents were arrested for Cruelty and neglect offences and questioned in the station. Further inquiries revealed that the parents had been convicted in the UK for child endangerment when one of the children had to be hospitalised after ingesting dangerous prescription drugs whilst left alone in a hotel whilst the parents were out nightclubbing. We decided to charge the parents that evening and bailed them out to appear in court the next day. They were charged primarily because we had overwhelming evidence against them and further because once charged it became a matter for the court to decide on how to deal or dispose of the case and Police senior officers could not interfere. Both my colleague and I finished the next morning exhausted but satisfied that we had done the correct thing. I went home at 0700 am by 0830 my phone was ringing and I was ordered by very irate Senior Police officer to come down to the station.What followed was a grilling and telling off by this Senior Police officer for having taken the action we had. As I was the Sergeant in charge, my colleague was fortunately spared the grilling. I just sat through it, said sorry and smiled to myself. I was warned that if the case was lost in court I could say goodbye to any future promotion.
What followed was three months of extensive investigation by my colleague and I. We interviewed nearly 30 witnesses and traced the whole history of the Children in Gibraltar. We uncovered that the children attended a first school and on interviewing the teachers found out that they had been keeping a diary of the state of the children and that they had alerted social services and the police of it. Teachers had of their own accord taken to feeding the children and cleaning their hair to clear them of lice etc. We interviewed previous landlords of the parents and the story repeated itself. Previous neighbours gave statements highlighting how the police and the social services had been contacted and informed. This pattern was repeated for a protracted period of time. The father of the children earned quite a substantial monthly wage so that there was no excuse for the parents to subject their children to those living conditions. In the end the evidence was so overwhelming that the parent's lawyer advised them to plead guilty. They were sentenced to six months imprisonment suspended for a specific time. The children were taken into care but were later given to the maternal grandmother who took care of them in the UK.
At the end of it my Inspector, recommended both my colleague and me for a Commissioner's Commendation, unfortunately my colleague was not in the "good books" with a certain senior officer because she had placed a parking ticket on his car whilst illegally parked and the commendation never came and we received a "well done" note on our personal files. In the end the important thing was that the children were safe, healthy and well looked after.
My intentions in bringing this to light are to highlight certain issues that your good paper has had the courage to tackle:
1. Unfortunately the wrong type of people are in charge;
2. Whistleblowing is a dangerous activity in Gibraltar - the whistle blower is targeted by those who should be protecting them and encouraging ethical behaviour instead of covering up unethical conduct;
3. Co-operation between all services is essential because of the need to share resources for the good and safety of all citizens. In this case I refer to the unacceptable circumstance that exist currently between the RGP and GDP;
4. Its about time there is a severe shake up of all these services with the aim at eradicating unethical behaviour, corruption and the "don't care let someone else deal with it" attitude.