In and out of the UK's Care System all her life, Barbara Richards' story is a tragic and terrible indictment of a society turning to cruelty and abuse.
You can find various amateur home videos made by Barbara Richards and her friends on Youtube. Although many things have been taken away from Barbara's life, a scholarshop to RADA isn't one of them. On the videos, this woman looks what she is: a little desperate, very naive, poor, stressed and worn out.
Since she was a young girl, Barbara Richards has been treated like a nutter - with all the indiginity that goes with such a term. But defying the odds, she has turned herself into a nuisance: a one-woman printing press of letters to everyone from Jack Straw to the Archbishop of Canterbury. For come what may, Barbara will find little tranquility until the system that nearly destroyed her is rebuilt from the ground up - and all the memories therein thus expunged.
She first came to my attention when nby broke the story of suspicions in relation to Gordon Brown's health. Typically, she agreed with my diagnosis that he is 'a sick man', but begged me to persuade him that packing in the job would be good for both him and his family. I pointed out that I had zero influence among his ilk, but Barbara bombarded me with emails anyway. At the time, to be honest, it was the last thing I needed.
But right at the start of our correspondence, she had typed one terse sentence that brought me up short: 'I am a survivor of the pindown scandal and the secret family courts'. I had a vague idea what pindown was about: but when had it been - five years ago? Twenty? The memory plays tricks about such things. As for 'secret family courts', I'd never heard of them: it sounded like classic paranoia. So as the emails continued to arrive in my inbox - and the allegations got wilder - I put them to one side to focus on what I knew was going to be a rough ride from New Labour's denial machine.
Eventually, I emailed some questions to Barbara, and asked her to stop sending for a while until I'd digested the anwers. This she did - along with profuse apologies - and so I began to check out her version of events. To my surprise, virtually everything she alleged turned out to be a matter of record. And so this is Barbara's story.
As a pre-pubescent child, Barbara Richards suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her brother. "I didn't know what it was except I didn't want him to do it" she says, "And I felt I couldn't tell my father". After passing for her local Grammar School and demonstrating a talent for music, the traumas of her childhood helped bring on a total breakdown at the age of thirteen. There was an obvious dysfunction in her parental situation, although Barbara finds it hard to talk about or explain this. But her parents could no longer cope, and so at age 14, she was placed in a children's home: the infamous Chadswell centre in Staffordshire - later closed down because of the appalling level of child abuse (both sexual and physical) taking place there.
Barbara Richards describes her time there:
"I was punched by the man in charge for crying in the night, and put into a cell
I was left in the cell day and night with the lights on all the time so that I became confused. I believe that is a psychological torture technique that has been used by the CIA.
I was left alone in that cell, and no-one made any attempt at all to find out why I had been crying, they were just dead cruel to me.
When they let me out of the cell, I went straight up to the bathroom and jumped out the window on the 1st floor to escape."
As readers may have spotted back here in 2009, there's been rather a lot of jumping out of windows going on at the Scottish Good Shepherd centre: so far this year alone, 232 girls have run away from the place....and of course, two girls died when they committed suicide rather than go back.
"I ran down the road and the man came running after me and got two road workmen to catch me. They threw me onto the pavement then the man twisted my arms behind my back and got me back to the home.
I had read a suicide letter which another girl had written and she said in the letter that they were letting people come into the "home" to have sex with her against her will. I just thought that if I smeared snot and shit all over the place they would keep out. That's why they got St Georges Psychiatric Hospital to take me away."
So in July 1972, at the age of fourteen - already a veteran of sexual and physical abuse - Barbara was placed in St George's Psychiatric hospital in Stafford .
"One of the male nurses repeatedly tried to have sex with me....the psychiatrist told me there was nothing the matter with me and that I was only there as a "place of safety". It's a funny place to keep a young girl safe though, isn't it, on an adult mixed sex ward where there are drug addicts, sex offenders and people with serious mental health issues.
I recieved no schooling for a year at least. They would not let me go to school, and the school did not send me any homework. No-one from the school came to visit me, and as far as I am aware, no-one from the LEA did either"
After a year in St George's, Barbara changed schools twice to avoid 'you're a nutter' bullying - yet still passed five O-levels. But circumstances at home were tricky: her father suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, and the family was financially desperate. So despite wanting to take A-levels,
"... I had to get a job. I got a job at an agricultural firm, Burgesses. I hated it, it was rubbish pay as well. I felt like rubbish most of the time, and although I applied for other jobs, no-one wanted to take me on, because of me being in St Georges."
It is one of the many scandals in contemporary Britain that employment prejudice based on mental health remains rife - and does not represent a criminal offence in the way that sexism, ageism and racism do.
Around this time Barbara Richards began to receive unwanted attention from a family friend, freemason and one-time Labour deputy Mayor of Stone, David Haswell. Still mentally fragile and with a decade of abuse behind her, she was suffering from appallingly low self-esteem. Haswell persisted and eventually raped her.
"My son was concieved as a result of the rape. I didn't report the rape at the time, because I didn't realise that I had been raped at that point - I had been abused so many times that I didn't know what the definition of rape was, I thought a rapist had to have a gun or a knife or something, and I didn't realise that just saying "no" and "please don't" counted. Neither did I know anything about predatory grooming. I was being treated for mental illness at the time of the rape, because I was always crying, and people were calling me a "nutter" because of that, but I was crying because I was suffering from PTSD*, because of all the things which had happened. David Haswell was fully aware of my mental state, he knew I was ill, he pretended to help me, in the capacity of a family friend, and then he raped me. I didn't go to the police, but when I found out that my son had Aspergers Syndrome, the North Staffs clinic who diagnosed my son with this disorder sent a community nurse to my house to help support me..."
* Post-traumatic stress disorder
Thus, after a lifetime of endless mental, physical and sexual abuse, the first time Barbara Richards received any form of positive treatment at the hands of the State was after being raped and then giving birth to an Aspergers child. (This was a genetic inheritance from her father). It wasn't to continue. After several years of relatively normal life, she eventually managed to put into mature perspective what had happened to her. This was the start off her persistent campaign to reveal the widespread abuse apparent in most forms of social and mental care.
"I didn't want revenge, because I'm a Christian. I just wanted justice, and I still do. I just felt the truth had to come out"
But Barbara Richards discovered very quickly that there were many who didn't want the truth to come out. She wrote to everyone from the Queen to Jack Straw and downwards. Her MP Bill Cash was, she feels, less than helpful. And she wasn't the only one to notice this - for by now she'd enlisted the help and support of Lord Ramsbotham.
"Bill Cash did eventually tell me that he had been involved in the Pindown investigation, but he told me that there had been no conspiracy, and as a persecuted survivor I'm sure that is simply not true. Lord Ramsbotham told me that Bill Cash was not answering the letters that he wrote to him concerning me, when he very kindly offered to help me...he wrote to say he couldn't understand the silence from Cash."
Although the eventual Pindown Report was damning, events in the intervening years demonstrated all too tragically how little or nothing had changed. Bear in mind that Barbara's ordeal began thirty-seven years ago. When 11-year old care child Gareth Myatt died as a result of pindown-style abuse in 2004, once more there was a report. This Hansard extract sums up the continuing dereliction of our Parliamentary representatives: Northampton MP Sally (now Baroness) Keeble spoke as follows two years after Myatt's death:
'Ms Keeble: I ask four things of my right hon. Friend the Minister. First, there should be a public inquiry into the use of restraint in secure training centres. I say “public” because there was a review in 2004, at the time of Gareth’s death. A 113-page report was produced, which I have with me. It was rewritten several times and was finally reduced to a one-page summary, which was posted on the Youth Justice Board website. That is completely inadequate. Internal reviews have not dealt with the issues, which only emerged into the public domain as a result of Gareth’s death and inquest. They would not have emerged if it had not been for the work done by an organisation called Inquest.' (My highlighting)
We have skipped forward here because what Ms Keeble saw in 2006 was an attempt to paper over an enormous and very unpleasant settlement crack in the edifice known as the UK Care System. This has - if Barbara Richards' testimony is to be believed - taken the form of persecution by the authorities (especially those engaged in social work) in order to stop the victims revealing the extent of the problem. Richards again on what has happened to her since as a mother clashing with the infamous system of Secret Family Courts:
"They came up with this trumped up charge that I was abusing my son and I had this PAS [parental alienation syndrome]....which is absolute rubbish, it was just an excuse to stick me somewhere quiet. PAS is a totally discredited diagnosis used by paedophiles in the US to separate struggling parents from their young children".
This is a serious charge - but the evidence fully supports her view.
Dr. Paul J. Fink, a past President of the APA and President of the Leadership Council on Mental Health, Justice, and the Media, states categorically that
“PAS as a scientific theory has been excoriated by legitimate researchers across the nation. Judged solely on its merits, Dr. Gardner [the original 'inventor' of PAS] should be a pathetic footnote of psychiatry, or an example of poor scientific standards.... Gardner and his bogus theory have done untold damage to sexually and physically abused children and their protective parents."
This is because paedophiles can position themselves as 'safe alternatives' to mothers diagnosed with PAS. US attorney Richard Ducote goes further:
"Parental Alienation Syndrome is a bogus, pro-paedophiliac fraud concocted by Richard Gardner".
But Barbara Richards - and others at Mothers For Justice - allege that PAS has been used to shut up the whistleblowers here in the UK. Incensed by the way in which former pindown victims were being apparently persecuted, from 1998 onwards Stoke solicitor Richard Wise began to both 'spring' and then represent women being treated in this way - including Barbara. Partly as a result of this, he was voted Human Rights Lawyer of the Year. Profiled by both the Guardian and Independent newspapers around this time, he was, it seems, the man who could hear about a case at breakfast and get the victim out of jail in time for tea. Barbara needed his help badly, as by now her life experiences at the hands of our 'caring' society had become too much for her:
'I was picked up by Stafford police round about 1999, following a failed suicide attempt, and I had been taken to Stafford Hospital and discharged myself, because when I woke up in the hospital I was frightened that they were going to shout at me and make me serve the patients their tea, as had happened when I had been taken to hospital when I was 16 in Devon, after a suicide attempt.'
Without question, Wise sensed something rotten behind the Family Courts persecution. Barbara again:
"Richard Wise was a good man. His brother Ian works at Doughty Street Chambers to this day. Richard was so angry with Stoke MP Mark Fisher for not caring about this issue, he stood against him at the 2001 election. But then he got liver cancer and died. It was so sad. Everyone admired him and he had helped so many people."
Seven years on, she is still fighting the appalling injustices faced by her and the hundreds of others both let down and terrorised by the care system itself, and - Richards continues to allege - those in it who want all these events to be seen as the one-off, the small minority, the lone rotten apple that's in every barrel. But in recent years, the mainstream media have latched on to the appallingly controlling behaviour of care staff, social workers and Court solicitors when it comes to cases like hers.
The two senior Government ministers technically responsible for this area are Harriet Harman and Ed Balls. In 2006, following Baroness Keeble's somewhat abruptly demanding question, Harman replied:
'"The idea that people are sent to prison without any reports of the proceedings makes even more important the work that we are undertaking with the family courts, and with the important intervention of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, to open them up so that they act in the public interest while maintaining personal privacy."
In April 2009, the Government did indeed allow some media ‘access’ to the Secret Courts – but effectively neutered it by insisting that ‘In the interests of children, for the safety and protection of parties or witnesses (or persons connected with them), for the orderly conduct of proceedings, or where justice would otherwise be prejudiced, the court will have the power to restrict the attendance of the media’. (My emphasis)
This is merely gesture government. A further Ministerial statement added that freer media access will be given "when time allows". Why couldn't it have been given this year? Or in 2007?
Everything proceeds pretty much as before. These were Ed Balls’ exact words following the recent Rocking Horse Nursery abuse trial:
"This is a deeply distressing and disturbing case. It is vital we find out how an adult could abuse their position of trust in such an evil way, and we must do everything we can to prevent this kind of abuse happening in the future".
There’s that ‘everything we can’ mantra again. But on the ground, the reality (in the case of Barbara and those like her) is nothing. But if Mr Balls cares to read this piece (and stop slandering me as 'an extreme right-wing blogger) he'd know a fair bit more about precisely how it happens - and why it will happen again and again and again....until such time as whatever cancer at the heart of social care is detected and clinically removed.
Next in the series: the iceberg lying underneath Plymouth's Rocking Horse Nursery