Legal action set to go all the way to Scotland's highest court

The Scotsman/September 11, 2006
By Tanya Thompson

It was a crisp November morning on the island of South Ronaldsay when eight-year-old May Willsher was woken by her mother. The day had started like any other - the frantic rush to finish breakfast and the search for her homework before catching the bus for the six-mile journey to school.

As she waved goodbye to her mother, she had no idea that a policewoman and two social workers were about to take her away from home for the next six years.

"The headmistress took me and my older brother, Benjamin, into her office and they told us we were being taken into care," said Ms Willsher.

"My brother collapsed and I ran for the door. I just remember crying and screaming. The social workers held me by the arms to get me into the police car," she added. "Can you imagine telling a little girl that you're being taken away, that you won't be able to see your mother or brothers and sisters? It was unbelievable."

Ms Willsher, now aged 24, found herself at the centre of the biggest child sex-abuse inquiry in Scotland's history.

The children, it was said, were at risk due to alleged ritual sexual abuse by parents, a local minister and other members of the community.

Without any explanation, she and her brother were driven towards Kirkwall to a waiting plane that was to fly them from Orkney to foster homes in Inverness and Glasgow. She was separated from her brother in November 1990 and told that any contact with her family would be cut off from that day on.

Ms Willsher was a teenager before she was allowed to return home.

Following further raids across South Ronaldsay the next year, a total of 17 children were placed in local authority care.

Ms Willsher was sent to a succession of foster carers, some bad, some good, but there was one family she will never forget.

"It was sheer hell. The older brother started sexually abusing me. How ironic is that? They took me away from a normal, happy home to be placed in that kind of environment. It sickens me.

"The social workers didn't believe me and I ended up running away."

The Orkney case was dogged by controversy from the start. It was not until 4 April, 1991 that most of the other children were returned home due to a decision by Sheriff David Kelbie that the proceedings were incompetent, disclosure interviews with the children manipulative and evidence worthless.

There were many other mistakes. Critics claimed that Orkney Islands Council took the rather garbled interviews from three confused youngsters and decided they were absolute truth. Without cross-checking with teachers, doctors or anyone else, they acted.

They declared that almost everyone in the community was at fault, and conducted their whole operation in secrecy. Crucially, no medical evidence was ever found to back up the allegations of abuse.

Despite Lord Clyde's lengthy inquiry into the case, which heavily criticised social work and childcare practice, neither parents nor social workers were ever given the opportunity to address the abuse allegations in court.

Sixteen years on, Ms Willsher hopes she will set the record straight with a landmark legal challenge.

"It was like a witch hunt," said the young mother, who now has a two-year-old son of her own and lives in the north of England.

"They had decided we had been abused, and that was the end of it.

"There was no reason for taking us into care. We all said we had not been abused, but they wouldn't listen."

She is deeply critical of the interview techniques used by the social workers and claims a large bag of sweets was placed on the table and used as a reward for the 'right' answers.

Leading some of the interviews was social worker Liz McLean, then employed by the child protection charity the Royal Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (now known as Children 1st).

Ms McLean was an adherent of controversial American theories on how to identify examples of sexual and satanic abuse among children.

Social workers were dogged in their search for 'admissions' by the children and the disclosure sessions lasted for hours.

Ms Willsher claims she gave the answers social workers expected just to make the interrogation stop.

"You'd be in the room for hours, but despite saying, 'No, I was not abused,' you'd break down.

"In order to get out of the room I ended up saying anything she wanted. It was a terrible way to treat a young child."

In a recent documentary, a social worker who also interviewed the children was adamant that her views about the Orkney case have not changed.

She still believes the youngsters were abused, despite their vehement denials as children and their denials today.

The legal action, which hinges on whether the social workers were negligent, looks set to go all the way to the Court of Session, the highest civil court in Scotland.

"I don't care how long it takes, I think we have a right to be heard," added Ms Willsher.

"These people made a mistake and we'll have to live with that for the rest of our lives."

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