Abuse of Trust : Frank Beck, Britain's Most Notorious Child Abuser.

Frank Beck was the Leicestershire children's home manager who sexually and physically abused scores of children in his care.

Wednesday 10 May 2000

Frank Beck was the Leicestershire children's home manager who sexually and physically abused scores of children in his care. But why did he seem to be indispensable, why was he considered an expert, and how was he allowed to abuse for so long? Paul Gosling uncovers some hard truths.

Frank Beck remains Britain's most notorious child abuser. The former manager of Leicestershire children's homes received five life sentences in 1991, having sexually and physically abused about 200 children in his care over a 13-year period. Since Beck's sentencing - he died in prison - the main question has been how he got away with his crimes for so long.

Abuse of Trust, published this week, suggests some answers. Its publication coincides with the concluding phase of the Waterhouse inquiry, which has just ended its examination of the other great child abuse scandal of recent times, that of Clwyd in North Wales.

It will be some weeks before Waterhouse's conclusions are made public, but some allegations common to both scandals are already apparent. One is that masonic influence at the top of councils has undermined the efficiency of their management. Another is that the abusers had political influence. A third is that inspection and management of the homes was equally weak.

The difference between Clwyd and Leicestershire is that some of the North Wales homes in which abuse occurred were privately owned. Many experts, including some social services directors, predict that this is where any spate of abuse incidents in future will arise. It is too easy, they say, for privately run homes to evade proper scrutiny and to hide abuse taking place within them.

But it is equally true that we must learn the lessons of why Beck escaped detection for so long. At its simplest, the answer is that some of Beck's managers were guilty of negligence. It was not merely that they failed to supervise him properly or to monitor his behaviour. Their real sin was in ignoring and being over-sceptical about the welter of complaints they received about Beck.

Frank Beck was a bully of the worst kind. Although he was capable of enormous charm, he was also physically threatening. He beat up the children in his homes, allowed a colleague to run a torture regime, and intimidated his staff to such an extent that they were not just terrified of him but were actually moulded into believing that Beck was acting in the best interests of the children in care.

Most of Beck's colleagues were unaware of the sexual abuse that was going on but many did know of the beatings that Beck inflicted. Yet they did little or nothing to stop it. This is perhaps not surprising given the total control Beck exercised in the homes he ran and his apparent conviction that everything he did was correct, and necessary.

Despite this, and the lack of any independent complaints service available to children at that time, allegations against Beck did emerge.

It was mostly outsiders who questioned Beck's methods. Sometimes it was students on placement, on other occasions it was temporary workers with experience of how a good children's home is run. Often it was children running away from the homes who complained about the terrors inflicted on them.

But Beck's bosses refused to listen - as did the police officers to whom the escapee children spoke. Possibly the most astonishing failure was that one of Beck's managers regularly signed off a children's home's log book containing a litany of incidents where Beck and his colleagues broke the council's rules by inflicting harsh corporal punishment.

Part of the reason for managers' failure to face up to Beck was their unwillingness to implement their own disciplinary code. The Association of Directors of Social Services says that similar problems recur even now. Leicestershire's senior officers acted as though they needed to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Beck had broken the rules - the standard that applies in a criminal case - rather than just "on the balance of probabilities", as the rules actually stated.

So it was that, in an early incident, where Beck was prosecuted for physical assault on a boy in care but acquitted, no separate attempt was made to take action against him under the council's own disciplinary code. Yet such an action should have been successful, because it emerged in court that Beck had broken council rules by using corporal punishment. The court case had fallen merely because of a technicality about the status of the child concerned and whether Beck had legal authority to hit the boy.

Another element in the failure to discipline Beck was his prominence as a Liberal district councillor. But what lay at the heart of the management failings was his apparent sheer indispensability. Some of the children in Beck's care were there because of family breakdowns, some to give respite support to parents who could not cope, some because they were related to other children already in Beck's care. But many of them were hardened criminals, teenage prostitutes, joyriders , drug misusers and glue sniffers. These children were given to Beck because no one else could control them and Beck could.

Consciously or unconsciously, managers just did not want to know how Beck got results. "You can control children through affection and respect or through fear: what was apparent was that they were controlled," recalls Jim Roberts, a former Labour councillor and spokesperson on social services. Managers had more reason than councillors to suspect what was really happening, but they always seemed to be looking the other way.

Part of the reason why Beck achieved control was through his home grown "regression therapy", which was to be described by the prosecuting barrister in Beck's final court case as "the veil behind which the perverts took their pleasure". The so-called therapy involved children being dressed in nappies and bathed by adults. The justification was that this would "regress" the children to an earlier period in their lives when their "basic fault" in character had been caused - often because of sexual abuse by parents or carers - and allow the child to re-build their personality.

The reality was completely different. No attempt was made at reconstructing personalities. Affection was given sporadically, but was overwhelmed by the violence. Children were persistently provoked - by name calling, undermining, tickling and assault - until they threw temper tantrums. This, in turn, gave care workers the excuse to physically restrain children and, in some cases, to sexually abuse them.

At one point, these provocation sessions led to a child dying. The inquest on 12-year-old Simon O'Donnell recorded a verdict of suicide by hanging, and the coroner described regression therapy as "fumbling in the dark". He recommended that the therapy no longer be used. Instead, it continued.

It now seems more likely that O'Donnell was murdered by Beck. Simon was probably throttled with a towel used to restrain him while he was raped.

Yet "regression therapy" received widespread praise, backed by statistics indicating that out-of-control young people had learned to behave. A television documentary was shown and articles were published in the specialist press. Beck became an adviser - to the social work course at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), to the Metropolitan Police training college at Hendon and to Greater Manchester police - on how to deal with young criminals.

Frank Beck was no psychoanalyst, but he was effective at throwing key words around. To his managers, unschooled in psychology and psychiatry, words like "regression", "basic fault", and "nurturing" sounded impressive. Beck quoted liberally from experts such as Freud, Bettelheim, Balint and Dockar-Drysdale , apparently proving that his treatment was academically founded and clinically proven. It was no such thing, of course, but Beck's managers were in no position to question the practices being used.

Beck's first director of social services was Dorothy Edwards, who, when questioned about Beck's "regression therapy" at the time of the inquest into Simon O'Donnell's death, said: "I don't know quite what he's doing, but he's doing it very well."

Her replacement, Brian Rice, was severely criticised by the official Kirkwood inquiry into the Beck case and was eventually dismissed. Fellow chief officers say that it was only being a freemason that allowed Rice to stay in post before the inquiry report, despite his inadequacies.

At the time, Leicestershire's chief executive, chief constable, several chief officers, the Conservative group leader and other senior Tory councillors were all masons, giving the impression that some council decisions were made at lodge meetings. It should be stressed, though, that the United Grand Lodge of England says that there is no record of Beck ever being a mason.

All of this, of course, would be no more than ancient history if the lessons had been learned, and the management weaknesses put right. But social services directors, academics and barristers all say problems continue and that failings in children's residential care may now have been replicated in foster care and in residential care for adults. Some warn that things may even be worse in some children's homes, with more now run by the private sector.

We must conclude that not just hundreds but probably thousands of children in care during recent decades have been sexually and physically abused in the very shelters that were supposed to protect them. The least we owe them is to put an end to the tragedies of the past.

Mark D'Arcy and Paul Gosling, Abuse of Trust - Frank Beck and the Leicestershire Children's Homes Scandal, Bowerdean , 1998

Paul Gosling is co-author of Abuse of Trust - Frank Beck and the Leicestershire Children's Homes Scandal, published on 30 April, price £13.99