According to reports submitted three years before the houses were officially closed, children in care were punched, locked out naked, and had vinegar put on cuts.
According to a BBC investigation, more than 100 complaints were filed at the Doncaster children’s homes, which yet received a “good” rating from Ofsted.
Documents that have been leaked also demonstrate Ofsted was notified of issues 40 times.
The regulator and Hesley Group, which ran the residences, have both apologized.
More than 100 of the UK’s most vulnerable children in care are thought to have been mistreated, with many of them being nonverbal.
Each young person was charged £250,000 a year by the residences, which included two residential special schools.
The houses were nevertheless rated “excellent” by Ofsted until March 2021, when the agency intervened and ordered their closure.
In June 2022, BBC News discovered that more than 100 protection reports had been sent to authorities, and in October, an expert panel stated that there had been “systematic and sustained abuse” in the residences.
But, according to leaked Hesley Group documents, including sensitive protection reports, and interviews with 15 former employees, the BBC can now uncover the extent of authorities’ failure to act. Our investigation revealed:
Children were allegedly held overnight in bathrooms, forced to sit in frigid baths, and denied medication for days.
The mother of an autistic girl with significant learning disabilities and epilepsy told us that her daughter had been dragged across the floor of a residence.
Some employees’ criminal record checks were not signed off on for up to six months after they began working with vulnerable youngsters.
Support workers notified South Yorkshire Police, who are presently investigating certain Hesley staff for suspected abuse, three years before the closures.
Hesley’s records showed a 16% profit of £12 million for all of the sites it operates – nearly the same margin (17%) deemed “excessive” by a government monitor.
The Children’s Homes Association, a provider’s organization, has branded our latest findings as the worst care crisis since Winterbourne View in 2011.
The Hesley Group, which is controlled by Antin Infrastructure, a private equity group best known for investing in gas pipelines, continues to operate a school and placements for persons with learning difficulties. It claims it is unable to comment further due to an ongoing criminal investigation by South Yorkshire Police.
Chilli flakes fed
Chloe Straw, a former support worker at one of the homes, told us she spotted a boy smearing washing up liquid all over his arms and asked him why.
“He stated, ‘I do this so the night crew can’t touch me,'” she remembers. “That’s how far that child had to go to protect himself.”
Chloe says she was struck by what she saw as severe punishments for children from the minute she arrived at Fullerton House in 2017.
Abuse would be freely discussed among coworkers, she claims, and some would sit in chairs blocking bedroom doors, preventing youngsters from leaving.
Chloe claims she raised her concerns with senior employees several times, but was told her account was a question of perception.
“I literally begged, pleaded, and cried for this woman to listen to me.”
Our interviews with former employees like Chloe, as well as our access to sensitive Hesley Group incident report logs, demonstrate a pattern of physical and emotional abuse and neglect by staff.
A support worker told us that they had seen a youngster being fed a scoop of chilli flakes while being denied water.
According to the event logs, one child received a black eye, while others were punched and kicked in the stomach. One child was swung around by their ankles, and another was locked outside in frigid weather while naked.
The documents also detail shocking mistreatment, such as a report of a child being locked in a bathroom overnight, two other reports of children not being given medication for days, and four allegations of others not being fed correctly – with at least one child losing weight.
The incident logs obtained by the BBC show that 104 complaints of concern were received at the households between early 2018 and spring 2021.
Records show that the corporation deemed several complaints to be substantiated, such as an unexplained injury to a child’s eye and a toddler being beaten over the head with a plastic file. The most majority, however, were not, and many of those that were were not disclosed with authorities, despite Hesley managers’ legal need to do so.
The leaked Hesley logs also show that over a three-year period, Doncaster Council’s safeguarding lead, known as the LADO, received 66 warnings concerning the Hesley properties. Ofsted received 40 distinct warnings, yet the houses maintained their “good” rating.
When Chloe Straw addressed the police in 2018, she gave the names of children she had heard were being harmed – as well as those of alleged abusive colleagues – but was told there was insufficient evidence to pursue a case.
“It’s awful,” she recalls, recalling the length of time it took to close the home where she worked. “That’s three more years of abuse.”
Another former support worker informed us that they had reported alleged abuse to police in 2018, but were told there were insufficient resources to investigate.
South Yorkshire Police says there is insufficient evidence in both incidents to proceed with a criminal investigation, but it has forwarded the claims to the local authority and met with council personnel.
Former Hesley employees we spoke with also complained about significant understaffing and questioned the quality of support worker recruiting – some of whom were paid £9.05 per hour in 2020 to work with severely fragile and problematic youngsters.
Multiple support workers were permitted to work with children for up to six months before their DBS criminal record checks were completed, according to Hesley personnel papers obtained by the BBC.
‘Something from Guantanamo Bay,’ they say.
Ruby Oades, Nicola Oades’ autistic daughter with epilepsy and substantial learning problems, was grabbed by the wrist and pulled inside her bedroom at Fullerton House by a member of staff who was later fired.
“It’s horrible,” Nicola says. “It’s difficult enough to make the decision to place your child in care – you put your entire confidence in these individuals.”
Ruby had just lately been transferred to Fullerton from a home run by Kisimul, another care and special education provider.
Private equity firm Antin Infrastructure owns both Hesley and Kisimul.
Ruby had previously been harmed by eight members of staff at the Kisimul home, according to a council probe. The harassment was so blatant that staff members referred to her as “twatting” in communications.
Ruby dislikes loud noises, but if she misbehaved, Kisimul personnel would lock her in the kitchen and blast the radio at full power as a punishment, or threaten her with it. One staff member compared the procedure to “something out of Guantanamo Bay”.
“It’s soul-destroying,” Nicola says. “You’d think that for £250,000 a year, [children] would get the Rolls Royce of care.”
Kisimul stated it had apologised at the time for care “which fell short of our high standards”.
According to Peter Morris, an expert researcher on such investments, private equity firms currently possess more than a quarter of all children’s home placements in England and Wales.
Morris is concerned about the sector’s desire for private equity investment. He wonders how Antin’s experience with gas pipelines and toll highways applies to children’s homes.
“Because regulators enable private equity firms to operate primarily in secret, they’ve grown accustomed to not being held accountable over the last 40 years.”
According to Dr Mark Kerr, deputy CEO of the Children’s Houses Association, the abuse in the Hesley homes is the largest care scandal since Winterbourne View, an adult care facility near Bristol secretly recorded by BBC Panorama in 2011.
He claims that there were evident institutional failures to prevent abuse at the Doncaster homes, which he believes will be learned from, but he fears that standards may fall across the industry.
“We have a record number of children in care, a labor problem, and woefully underfunded local government services and government regulators.”
Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman told the BBC that while Hesley managers had “a significant failure of integrity” in reporting problems, she was “truly sorry” for the regulator’s mistakes.
“We acted in response to concerns, but we took longer than necessary to recognize the pattern of abuse.”
Ms Spielman says Ofsted needs greater powers to regulate owners of children’s homes – to allow it to “join-up information”.
“It’s difficult to determine if additional residences may have comparable dangers or if there is a broader management issue,” she said.