The Orkney Inquiry

Inquiry into the Removal of Children from Orkney in February 1991 (1992) Report of the Inquiry into the Removal of Children from Orkney in February 1991: return to an Address of the Honourable the House of Commons dated 27 October 1992 [James J. Clyde] Edinburgh: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 0 10 219593 5This inquiry followed the removal on Place of Safety Orders of nine children from four families living on the island of South Ronaldsay on 27 February 1991. They were returned home on 4 April when the Sheriff Court ruled that the proceedings were incompetent, a ruling which was overturned on appeal but, by this time, the public outcry had been such that the government had set up an inquiry into the removal of the children.

It was not within the remit of the inquiry team to comment on the validity of the allegations which were never put to proof but on the circumstances which surrounded the children’s removal and return.

Key points

  • Staff had acted in good faith.
  • Children of the W family living on South Ronaldsay, among which there was a history of abuse, had been removed to the mainland where they were interviewed by an RSSPCC (Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) team headed by Liz MacLean.
  • In February 1991 allegations of abuse involving children in other families, which were later retracted, were made by the W children.
  • On 14 February the Police and Social Work Department agreed to a joint operation to remove the children from the other families on 27 February and the Director of Social Work sought the help of other social work departments.
  • At the final briefings it became clear that the Police did not regard the evidence as sufficient to arrest any of the parents and the mainland social workers brought in for the operation expressed strong reservations about it before eventually agreeing to go along with it.
  • The Children’s Panel failed to carry out its obligations to inform the parents and the children about the Hearings and the child abuse case conference was held without inviting the parents.
  • No support was provided to the parents and mail for the children was not passed on.
  • There were significant flaws in the procedural steps to taking out the Place of Safety Orders.
  • Planning for the removal had been generally good but there had been failures in almost all other aspects of the operation which were compounded by communication failures and failures to recognise and use the expertise of the mainland social workers.
  • The Social Work Department, the Northern Constabulary and the Acting Reporter all failed to carry out their legal obligations and there was bad practice by the Children’s Panel.
  • There were numerous breaches of the rights of the children and of their parents.
  • The management of the placements by Highland Social Work Department had been efficient and effective but the management of the placements by Strathclyde Social Work Department had not been.
  • The management of the interviews by the RSSPCC and the Northern Constabulary had been unsatisfactory, not least because there had been no joint approach, interviewers had not kept an open mind and the interviewers lacked training in evidential standards and in dealing with denials and retractions.
  • The return of the children had been too precipitate.
  • Some of the behaviour of the parents had been unreasonable.
  • Greater care in the use of labels, in maintaining the balance between unnecessary intervention and failing to intervene, in keeping an open mind and in co-operating with parents and other agencies is needed.
  • Local and national guidelines need to be revised to take account of the issues raised by the inquiry.
  • Removal of a child should only take place after all other options have been explored and found to be inadequate.
  • A new Interim Protection Order should be introduced to cover situations where further investigation is needed but it is not necessary to remove the child.
  • As far as possible siblings should not be separated and parents should have access or the means to communicate with their children.
  • The criticism was directed at the social workers even though this was a joint Police/social work operation.


The report is presented in five parts. Part One, Introduction, consisting of Chapter I The public inquiry, summarises the events surrounding the removal and return of the children. The inquiry team were appointed on 20 June 1991 and they held a preliminary hearing on 3 July 1991 followed by hearings from 26 August 1991 to 25 March 1992. John Powell interviewed the children at home separately and, with assistance from Judith Trowell, they worked their way through a considerable amount of records and videotapes along with the many submissions people had made. They conclude that the staff had acted in good faith but they point out that their remit did not cover the truth or falsity of the allegations or the effects on the children.

Part Two, The facts begins with an outline in Chapter II of The background. In February 1990 Paul Lee became Director of Social Work and reorganised the department, appointing Susan Millar team leader for child care in February 1991. At the time the Department had no child protection policies except the 1984 Memorandum on non-accidental injury. In 1990 the Reporter had been suspended and the Acting Reporter, on secondment from Strathclyde, was operating without staff or guidelines.

The W family had moved to South Ronaldsay in 1985. The father was sentenced to 18 months in prison for physical abuse in 1987 and on 26 June 1989 a Place of Safety Order was made in relation to sibling sexual abuse. On 13 July 1989 the Children’s Hearing had decided to return the children home under supervision but to prohibit contact with their older brother. On 30 October 1989 the younger children had been removed and placed on the mainland in the light of evidence of sexual abuse.

For reasons which are not entirely clear, the RSSPCC had offered a team of interviewers headed by Liz MacLean to interview the children; these interviews began on 21 November 1990 and, though not all were recorded, during them the children had talked about the private parts of animals and their siblings. On 6 February 1991 one child had named children in other families; on 7 February Paul Lee had been informed but Susan Millar, who was away on a course in Stirling, did not find out until 13 February.

She had in fact resigned on 8 February but delayed her departure until May. Liz MacLean assumes that, in further interviews on 12 and 13 February 1991, other siblings are reporting sexual abuse by other children and adults.

In Chapter III The decision to remove the children, the report tells how Susan Millar and Paul Lee met the Police on 14 February when it was decided to remove the children on 27 February. The field workers were shocked by the decision but did not question it and the inquiry team note that there was no formal decision; it was assumed it would happen. The evidence was assumed to be sound because the RSSPCC expertise was considered sufficient and further Police enquiries might compromise the case; so there was no consultation with anyone else, no formal assessment of risk, no consideration of alternative courses and no written report to the Reporter before 27 February.

On 14 February Paul Lee contacted other Directors of Social Work to request placements and five extra social workers for the week of 25 February because Orkney’s own children’s home was too small and separate placements on the mainland were seen as more conducive to disclosure. He also briefed some senior officers and councillors, contacted the RSSPCC and the Scottish Office and attempted to obtain some information on the families. The removal was planned for early morning, before school, to ensure secrecy and to get the children to the mainland placements by evening.

Meanwhile, the child who had made the original allegations said on 20 February, ‘Did you know this was all a lie?’

Safe houses were organised on Orkney where the children could stay until they were flown out and social workers visited the schools to get information on the children but when the school health officer visited the primary school to carry out annual medical checks she found nothing significant to report. Meanwhile Susan Millar had contacted various Social Work Departments about the arrangements, including Strathclyde where she gave the impression that the children were to take no possessions.

In Chapter V The final preparations, the report tells how there was a meeting on Sunday 24 February of most of those involved; on 25 February most of those from the mainland flew in but there was no meeting for them until 26 February at 11 am. At this point if became clear that the Police had decided not to detain the H parents and only to detain, not arrest, the others. A Place of Safety Order was granted to the council on oral evidence but it did not say on which possible grounds it was granted and, though the Acting Reporter was told of the case verbally, he assumed it was not a formal referral because it was not in writing though he did contact the Regional Reporter who organised support for him.

The social workers were concerned at discrepancies in the information given to them and there was a succession of meetings with the other parties involved, including Liz MacLean, at which point it became clear that the mainland social workers were unhappy about the methodology and the grounds for the operation. This unhappiness erupted when the social workers and Police met for a final joint briefing and it became clear that the Social Work Department and the Police had different agendas. It erupted again when they broke into separate teams at which time practical details were still being hammered out.

Two mainland social workers confronted Paul Lee, Susan Millar and staff from the RSSPCC and only after a telephone conversation with a senior member of their department agreed to go ahead with the operation on the grounds that it would be less damaging for the children for them to participate than to pull out at this stage.

In Chapter VI The removal of the children, the report tells of the removals of the children from the four different households and the tensions between Susan Millar and Liz MacLean and the mainland social workers. There were debriefing meetings in Orkney on 1 March and in Strathclyde on 4 March when a statement of concerns was drafted.

In Chapter VII The procedural history, the report tells how on 27 February the Reporters were given summaries of all but one of the interviews with the W children and how, by 1 March, the Reporters had agreed that there was enough evidence for proceedings in relation to seven children but not the H children.

When the Children’s Panel met, it decided to dispense with the children’s presence at its meeting on 5 March but did not tell the parents. It also agreed two grounds for referral for all the nine children, but the first Hearing notices did not reach the children in time and the parents were not informed until 4 March. The Hearing was delayed to allow Senior Counsel to arrive and lasted four hours. The parents were only shown the grounds 30 minutes before the Hearing and refused to accept them but the Hearing agreed to 21 days further detention and the parents’ appeal to the Sheriff was refused.

Susan Millar left for discussions with the RSSPCC and Strathclyde Social Work Department while four Curators (Guardians ad Litem) were appointed. The Social Work Department appointed a press officer who was unable to match the free flow of information on island. At the child abuse case conference on 19 March no consideration was given to inviting the parents, as they should have been, and also the Health Visitor was not invited.

When the Acting Reporter instructed Senior Counsel, he ordered the suspension of the interviewing and at the second Children’s Hearing on 25 March there were arguments between another Senior Counsel and the Reporter over the relevance of the medical reports which said there was no evidence of abuse. However, the Hearing agreed a further 21 days detention and the parents’ appeal was rejected.

There had been no initial support for, and no visits to, the parents from the Social Work Department, though Paul Lee wrote to them on 1, 7 and 22 March and they had plenty of public support. Mail to the children was sent via the Social Work Department and initially was not passed on but, when it was later agreed to pass it on, so much had accumulated that it was never given to the children. The children also received a large amount of unsolicited mail. Overall, the parents’ concerns were not really taken seriously.

The children placed in the Highland Region were medically examined, with their consent, the day after they arrived having been placed in mainly rural foster placements where there were visited regularly by the co-ordinator who explained the grounds to them and where they attended local schools.

Not all the children placed in Strathclyde consented to a medical examination and there were problems with the placements because some foster parents expected to be treated as part of the team, the co-ordinator was not part of the social work department, none of the children attended school, which increased the burdens on the foster parents and the placement of one child at Geilsland School was unlawful.

In Chapter XI The interviews, the report describes the arrangements for the interviews by teams of social workers and police interviews, noting that, though they were joint interviews, there was no joint approach. Not all interviews were recorded and the interviewers were managed separately. Children had different numbers of interviews and interviewers regarded the use of leading or directive questions as appropriate. There was no management planning for handling or pacing the interviews and no formal consent was sought to the interviews or to audio or video being used.

In Chapter XII The end of the story, the report tells how the parents were divided on how to proceed but, following the 3 April hearing before the Sheriff, he decided on 4 April that the proceedings were incompetent (a decision later to be overturned on appeal). The Reporters indicated to Paul Lee that, without further evidence, he could not detain the children. A crowd then marched on the Social Work Department and Paul Lee told the parents he would try to arrange the children’s return by evening.

In Highland the co-ordinator heard of the decision and managed to get the children away from Inverness without publicity but they were received by a packed Kirkwall Airport with nowhere private for the parents.

Following consultation with Senior Counsel, the Reporter decided to proceed with a formal appeal but to tell the parents the cases would be abandoned. A case conference on 9 April agreed to place the children on the Child Protection Register though the Doctor and the Health Visitor voted against this and on 1 May the Crown Office announced that there would be no criminal investigation.

The media had become involved on 27 February when Councillor Annal had phoned the Aberdeen Press and Journal and the Orcadian to “expose the … blunder” and, though Paul Lee had a press statement ready, the Social Work Department felt a bond of confidentiality which the parents did not. The inquiry team note that, while the carers shielded the children from the media coverage, the boy placed at Geilsland had not been so shielded to avoid his identification and had appreciated the press coverage.

Part Three consists of a Commentary on the events. In Chapter XIII, The events prior to removal, the inquiry team comment that previous experience with the W family had coloured the Social Work Department’s approach; Liz MacLean was expecting there to be abuse and the existing guidelines did not cover this type of situation. However, there had been no multi-disciplinary case conference and there were no departmental minutes of decisions, records of Liz MacLean’s interviews or record of the 14 February discussions.

The only record of the interviews was written by a police representative and no steps were taken to record the subsequent interviews in the light of the 6 March allegations. No-one considered the appropriate procedural steps between receipt of the allegations and the decision to seek Place of Safety Orders. In practice, none of the allegations came directly from the core children, there had been no detailed analysis of the information provided by the W children and the RSSPCC had never sought a full account of children’s social and emotional development.

There had been no proper analysis of the grounds for a Place of Safety Order, no assessment of risk and no consideration of alternatives. No time had been set aside to discuss the situation objectively, to question the decision to place the children on the mainland or to review the results of the medicals. In practice, the decision to remove had been a result of, among other things, Susan Millar’s “dominant personality”, the reluctance of others to raise concerns, the difficulty in challenging Liz MacLean’s material and the stress on Paul Lee and Susan Millar.

Planning for the uplift had been generally good but there had been lack of clarity about the roles of the mainland social workers, late clarification of lots of things, no clear direction and control, a failure to obtain information about the children for their new carers and lack of planning for medicals, education and support for the parents. There was little evidence of joint work by the Police and the Social Work Department and a failure to appreciate that the mainland social workers were more skilled than the Orkney social workers.

The Acting Reporter had expected a written referral and both the Social Work Department and the Northern Constabulary were obliged to inform the Reporter; the Reporter should also have acted when he heard about the situation and not waited until he got a written referral. Delaying the referral deliberately in order to defer the Children’s Hearing was bad practice as was the holding of a “business meeting” with the Panel before the Hearing. The Acting Reporter was also wrong to have refused to allow the medical reports to be used at the Hearing.

In Chapter XIV The removal and the subsequent events, they comment that there was a failure to give the children the explanations to which they were entitled on the day of removal and the prohibition on personal possessions was wrong. The parents should have been given copies of the Orders plus a short explanation. The delay in undertaking the medical examinations in Highland had been unfortunate but there had been confusion in Strathclyde and the results of the medicals should have been reported to the parents.

The Highland placements were satisfactory, the Strathclyde ones less so with being Geilsland wholly unsuitable; however, there should be no criticism of those who had provided the care. There had been no need to separate the children, whose welfare had been subordinated to the need to gain evidence, and the absence of a limit on the number of interviews had led to longer separations.

There had been failures to obtain information from the parents and to provide adequate information to the carers. There was no reason to prevent supervised access or to keep the siblings separate for any length of time. The arrangements for correspondence were inadequate and there had been no attempt to consider their religious welfare. Education had been provided in Highland but not in Strathclyde.

Overall the Highland management had been efficient and effective but Strathclyde had failed to delegate properly and there had been tensions in all the relationships, with lack of clarification of roles and confusion about the relationships between the foster carers and Orkney Social Work Department. The main problem in Highland had been that the reports to parents had been too anodyne, thus raising their stress. However, no one in Strathclyde visited the children or shared the documents sent by the Reporter with the children.

The parents should have been supported, and if the Social Work Department did not have the resources, they should have been requested at the time of the 14 February request. The parents should have been given more information about the children including their placement addresses.

There had been inadequate planning and no recognition of the workload involved in the interviews. Liz MacLean had had no training in evidential standards and the Police interviewers had no training in dealing with third-party allegations, denials or retractions. They had inadequate background information about the children and had failed to clarify the relationships between the carers and the interviewers or to understand the importance of the carers’ information. Not all the interviews had been recorded and the written notes were of variable quality. Managers had not recognised the lack of experience of process recording among interviewers and there were no records of the interviewers’ contacts with other professionals.

The interviewers did not maintain an open mind and the children might have concluded that there was little point in saying anything that was at variance with the interviewer’s views. The duration and number of interviews varied widely and there had been no attempt to seek informed consent.

The return of the children had been too precipitate, though continuing with the Places of Safety Orders would have produced a greater public outcry; however, abandoning the cases meant it had been impossible to clear the air.

The parents had been unreasonable in some of their behaviour and the campaign of ridicule and abuse against the social workers had not been justified but there had been no clear procedure for the parents to complain to the Social Work Department.

In Part Four, the inquiry team present their Recommendations. In Chapter XV Child protection, they review the existing law and conventions and the various definitions of abuse, stressing that labels should only be used where there is a common understanding of their meaning and arguing that the key issue is whether the child needs protection. They had received information that it was likely to grow generation to generation but argue that, as sexual abuse is far from uncommon, there needs to be a balance between unnecessary intervention and failing to intervene. One problem is the stress in dealing with abuse and the Orkney staff had no-one to whom they could go for support.

Investigators need to distinguish between taking an allegation seriously and believing the allegation, and to preserve an open mind. While there may be problems of family secrecy and cases of physical abuse or neglect may require immediate action, this may lose further information or evidence to inform an assessment.

Parents have rights as well as children and there are very few cases when parents will not co-operate; moreover, their co-operation may obviate the need to make enquiries through the children. Enquiries should also be made through school and the health service and agencies should co-operate to keep medical examinations to a minimum where they are necessary. Cases involving multiple authorities need special arrangements for co-operation and authorities need to be prepared for media interest.

The possibility of removing the abuser rather than the child should be considered and prosecutions that are not in the child’s best interest should be avoided; there might be a diversion scheme and imprisonment might not be the norm in intra-family abuse.

While one has to beware of being over-prescriptive, every authority should have local guidelines and the national guidelines need to be extended to multiple abuse cases; they should also cover the removal of children, accurate records, selection of staff, interviewing, inter-agency meetings and responding to the media.

The inquiry team summarise the various proposals put forward for supporting an island authority and conclude that there is no easy solution but they stress the need for more research especially into methods of investigation.

In Chapter XVI Removal of children to places of safety, they comment that the power to remove children under para. 37(2) of 1968 Social Work (Scotland) Act is uncertain and in conflict with the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In principle, removal should only take place after all other courses have been considered and found inadequate, for example if removing the abuser or ensuring sufficient protection from the abuser is not possible. They note the risk involved in removing a child with insufficient evidence and child being sent back to the abuser. Place of Safety Orders are mistakenly seen as justifying intervention whereas they should be a last resort when other interventions have failed.

They argue for a new name: a Child Protection Order which would be enforceable for three days only, for which anyone with adequate grounds could make a written application to a magistrate and against which the parents would have an immediate right to seek a variation or cancellation; any concealment of the address of the child would be part of the Order. There would be an identified social worker to work with parents and carers would have full background information. They also propose Interim Protection Orders as an alternative to the removal of a child in order to assist in any investigation or assessment.

In Chapter XVII Children in places of safety, they note that technically children on Places of Safety Orders are not in the care of the local authority but their care needs to be managed and they suggest having an independent safeguarder to ensure that necessary action is taken. As far as possible, siblings should not be separated and they should have access to each other if they are; children should be allowed personal possessions and access to parents, relatives and friends except where there are compelling reasons for a restriction and, where access is not practicable, there should be other forms of communication.

In order not to exacerbate the trauma of removal, any routine medical examination should include examination for evidence where appropriate by paediatric experts, male and female. Consent should be obtained and there is no reason why parents should not have results.

Interviewers need to distinguish investigative and therapeutic interviews which should be properly planned; however they are only one part of an assessment; information from carers is needed as well as proper interview records and full notes after an interview, whether or not it was recorded. Interviewers need supervision and support and the maximum number of interviews should be two, if possible, taken at the child’s pace.

Key issues that need to be addressed in guidelines include:

  1. denials and retractions,
  2. interviewers’ knowledge of the allegations,
  3. the introduction of the interviewer’s agenda,
  4. leading questions,
  5. the introduction of previous material.

In Chapter XVIII The Children’s Panel and the Reporter, they comment that the Children’s Hearing system was not designed for cases of child sexual abuse where a child may be both victim and offender. Though the Reporter can act as an independent check, responsibility for Place of Safety Orders should lie with the Sheriff. There were obvious procedural problems in dealing with the grounds for the Place of Safety Order before it was executed and they need addressing, but the practice of Panels having a “business meetings” was inconsistent with the law and the Conventions. Some clarification was needed of the powers of the Reporter and how he should exercise them, including when communicating with the Police and the Procurator Fiscal.

In Chapter XIX The agencies and the community, they comment that there is no proper social work profession but there need to be specialists, especially in interviewing, and joint training, especially in child protection. The police need more training and greater recognition of the stress involved in child abuse cases.

They note that there was public criticism of the social workers but not of the police even though this was a joint operation; social workers need to be aware of their use of language, for example, ‘disclosure work,’ and they need to recognise the damage done to relationships between the Social Work Department and other local authority departments.

Part Five Summary contains a summary of the report.


In a report replete with criticisms of the managers and social workers in Orkney and Strathclyde Social Work Departments, it is important to point out that the performance of staff in Highland Region shows that these failings were not inevitable and thus not a result of being social workers or social work managers.

It is also important not to dismiss this report as a child of its time – a time when allegations of ‘ritual’ or ‘satanic’ abuse, fanned by evangelical groups in the USA and supported in the UK by the Evangelical Alliance and the NSPCC (Waterhouse et al., 1990), underlay crises in Nottingham and Rochdale. As its title says, it is mostly concerned with how the children came to be removed and returned and how they were cared for in between.

What is particularly striking is that no one had learned the lessons of the Cleveland Inquiry (1988) about keeping an open mind, stopping and thinking and never forgetting that the child’s welfare is paramount. Neither the interviewers, nor the social workers and their managers, nor the Acting Reporter and the Children’s Panel really kept an open mind; the allegations, albeit without any foundation, were assumed to be true and no-one stopped to think about any other possibility. Nor, even assuming the allegations were well-founded, did they stop to consider any alternative to removing the children.

There were numerous occasions when people could have taken a step back but the one occasion when that might have happened – the night before the removal – was thought to be too close to the event for such a momentous change of plan. In the end, like the experimenters in the Stanford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo et al., 2000), those involved in the operation had become so committed to it that they were unable to see the damage they were doing to other people.

Though the inquiry team suggest new guidelines, those involved did not keep to the ones that did exist and the fact that the staff in Highland Region managed for the most part to keep the needs of the children uppermost suggests that the answer does not lie in guidelines but in the attitudes of workers and managers to those for whom they are responsible and how appropriate relationships can be supported and maintained.


Inquiry into child abuse in Cleveland 1987 (1988) Report of the Inquiry into child abuse in Cleveland 1987 Cm 412 London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Waterhouse, R, Kingman, S and Cuffe, J (1990, 19 March) A satanic litany of children’s suffering. The Independent on Sunday

Zimbardo, P G, Maslach, C and Haney, C (2000) Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment: genesis, transformations, consequences In T Blass (Ed.) Obedience to authority: current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm, Chapter 11 London: Lawrence Erlbaum

3 thoughts on “The Orkney Inquiry”

  1. 1994 Ireland. I was deemed a Satanist and a witch because I wore Egyptian jewellery… I understand the shock these parents and children must have felt.
    It was only in research that I found out where this hysteria originated from.
    I was deemed to belong to a cult- no name, no members, just me.
    The whole thing was insane and showed me as a professional how mass hysteria works now as it did in the witch trials of dark ages.

  2. I totally agree with ‘Richard Tarvell’s comment. I find it very disturbing that the entire ‘W’ children’ were split up in such horrific circumstances and at such young ages, yet they have never ever been compensated for the trauma, distress and ruin of most of their childhood. As if the abuse suffered at the hands of their father and mother was not enough, they then endured further suffering at the hands of Incompetent and Unprofessional Social Workers. The way, these children were taken , dragged and screaming from their primary school, in front of their peers. The way and manner these poor “W” children were questioned for hours on end, being told they were going to go back home if they just agreed with the Social workers was absolutely traumatising and disturbing! The “W” family are not guilty for the up lifting, of the other families, its the social workers to blame as they became obsessed with their own terminology known as “Satanic Abuse”

    This case has been used in many constitutions so has had very large scale publicity, proving the importance of the handling of the case as “damning”. So if it is an eye opener then why were the “W” children involved not given any kind of support?

    Just incredibly sad and those responsible, should be accountable


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