Baby P council falsely accused me of abusing a child, reveals whistleblower who feared she'd lose her daughter
Last updated at 1:51 PM on 16th November 2008
Defiant: Nevres Kemal at home. 'I'm not going to shut up,' she told bosses
In a devastating interview, the social worker who blew the whistle on Haringey’s dire treatment of children before Baby P's death tells how the council tried to destroy her life - for telling the truth.
The whistleblower who warned about Haringey Council’s failing social services department six months before Baby P died has told how the council victimised her, even going to the extraordinary lengths of falsely accusing her of child abuse and beginning an investigation into her nine-year-old daughter’s welfare.
In an exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday, social worker Nevres Kemal said Haringey’s ‘monstrous’ allegation, which was made, she says, in response to the concerns she raised, left her terrified she would lose her daughter.
Miss Kemal had been accused, falsely, of shaking her fist in the face of a 14-year-old girl (not her daughter) which, according to Haringey, constituted ‘child abuse’.
She says: ‘They then turned their attention to my own daughter and launched a child protection investigation into her, which means that they felt she was at risk.
‘Ultimately, it could have led to her being taken away from me. I felt terribly frightened all the time. It was evil.’
She also revealed today how council staff were taken on 'team-building' junkets to Barcelona and Dublin and spent £1,000 on a tea party at the Ritz while back at work, cases of potentially abused children were piling up.
During what she calls a four-year ‘witch-hunt’, Miss Kemal, 44, lost her job, faced a police investigation and saw her family and health fall apart.
An employment tribunal heard that she had been singled out by her bosses because she was a whistleblower. Haringey eventually dropped the case and paid her undisclosed compensation.
An experienced child protection officer, Miss Kemal had joined the London borough in 2004, hoping it had learned lessons from the appalling episodes in its recent past, including the case of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old tortured and murdered in 2000.
Miss Kemal was ‘like a breath of fresh air’, said a colleague, ‘someone who liked to roll her sleeves up and set to work, rather than take part in meetings about meetings’.
Preventable: Nevres Kemal warned about Haringey Council's failing social services department six months before Baby P died
Yet very quickly it became apparent to Miss Kemal that the new management brought in to prevent a repeat of the murder of Victoria Climbie was still failing to protect children in its care. Unlike others, Miss Kemal did not remain silent.
She warned that there was a very real risk of another murder. Faced with her concerns, her managers took swift action – but not, it seems, to avert another tragedy.
While they were busy trying to smear her, says Miss Kemal, Baby P was being used as a punchbag and entering the final stage of his tragically short life.
Miss Kemal offers a damning behind-the-scenes insight into Haringey’s inept social services department.
‘God save us from endless inquiries,’ she says. ‘What Haringey needs is managers sacked and arrested, common sense to prevail and money put into frontline services.’
Children’s Services Director Sharon Shoesmith and Deputy Director Cecilia Hitchen have now agreed in writing that Miss Kemal never abused a child, in or outside of work.
‘I never regretted speaking up for the children who needed protection,’ says Miss Kemal.
Miss Kemal joined Haringey Council after the appalling case of Victoria Climbie, pictured, an eight-year-old girl tortured and murdered in 2000
‘I never thought, even when I was at my most scared, why did I not keep my mouth shut?
'Even my elderly mother knew it was quite clear I’d opened my mouth to defend children who Haringey wasn’t defending and they almost immediately accused me of child abuse.’
Nevres Kemal began work at the council in late August 2004. London-born, of Turkish Cypriot parents, she had specialised in child protection for 15 years.
She arrived with glowing references and an impeccable record and expected to feel valued.
Miss Kemal’s immigrant parents arrived here in 1958 with just £7.50 between them and their little girl learned early to take responsibility, as their interpreter in a foreign world.
She is a typically dutiful Turkish daughter.
After her father died, she moved back into her childhood home to keep her mother company. She is also a Westernised, politically aware and independent woman.
She says: ‘The office was very cliquey. Two key senior women were in a relationship, and if your face didn’t fit, that was it. You’d just be handed files, with no discussion. If you asked questions, you were stupid.’
Haringey’s abysmal reputation had hindered the recruitment of experienced, high-quality staff.
Of the 20 or so who worked in Miss Kemal’s open-plan office, most were agency staff or newly-qualified Jamaican social workers, brought to Britain by Haringey on expensive relocation packages.
On October 15, 2004, Miss Kemal’s manager allocated her a file about a group of children.
Teachers and relatives feared that the same male carer had subjected these children to grave sexual, physical and emotional abuse, and had alerted Social Services many months before. But the social worker responsible had quit, the file had not been reallocated, and the children were simply forgotten.
Miss Kemal was horrified and told an employment tribunal last year: ‘Children had not been properly protected. It was exactly the sort of situation, after the mistakes of the Victoria Climbie tragedy in Haringey, that the new management brought in to improve procedures and standards in child protection was supposed to prevent.’
Fighting back tears: Nevres Kemal feared social services would take her own daughter away after the council falsely accused her of child abuse
Miss Kemal hurriedly interviewed the sad little group - the youngest was only three - and decided they urgently needed rescuing.
Medical evidence could be vital if they were to be taken into care or the man prosecuted, and they could need urgent treatment.
But, incredibly, no one seemed clear who was responsible for authorising medicals - whether it was Social Services, police or health officials.
Post-Climbie, Miss Kemal found this extraordinary: medicals are basic to child protection work.
She fired off desperate emails, and finally went over her manager’s head to alert the department’s chief. She made it clear that the children had already waited months - a delay which could be traced back to Social Services. But she received no reply.
She therefore blew the whistle by alerting a local nurse consultant on child protection, Dorian Cole. He finally cut through the lethargy.
He raised the case at the Area Child Protection Committee and even circulated a flow chart on who had which responsibilities. ‘OK, folks,’ he wrote, ‘this is getting stupid. This is not complicated – let’s get it sorted.’
On November 15, Miss Kemal managed to get the children added to the Child Protection Register and they were eventually taken into care. ‘But,’ she says, ‘after this whistle-blowing, management became hostile towards me.’
She adds: ‘I was destructively and comprehensively investigated and punished for doing nothing wrong, whereas the managers who investigated me left children with an abuser for months. It was Climbie all over again, except that thankfully on this occasion no child died.’
Children's Services Director Sharon Shoesmith has agreed in writing that Miss Kemal never abused a child
Haringey used the allegations of a violent, mentally-ill man as the basis of their case against Miss Kemal.
Her own family had been friends with the man’s family, fellow Turks, for 50 years, and her mother spoke by phone every day to his wife.
But the man had become a gambler, paranoid and violent and was, for a time, compulsorily sectioned to a mental hospital.
Six years ago, the frightened wife found the courage to leave him, and Miss Kemal helped her and her then 12-year-old daughter find a new home.
The Muslim husband furiously blamed Miss Kemal, a Christian, and her ‘feminist’, Western ways.
In November 2004, the woman rang Miss Kemal’s mother. The woman’s daughter, who was now 14, had begun staying out late and, she feared, mixing with boys who used drugs.
But, like many modern teenagers, the girl became angry when her mother pointed out the dangers. She asked if Miss Kemal could come over to talk to the girl about keeping herself safe.
The mother had already asked Haringey social services for advice, but in vain. Miss Kemal did not hesitate to help. But she found mayhem at the house. Everyone was shouting and the girl told her to ‘f*** off’.
Two days later, the woman’s ex-husband falsely complained to the council that Miss Kemal had shaken her fist in his daughter’s face.
The council that did nothing while little Victoria Climbie was tortured to death - there were too many injuries on her emaciated body for the pathologist to count - launched a full-scale investigation, accusing Miss Kemal of child abuse.
Miss Kemal was first questioned on November 17 by her manager. Only independent, external investigators are meant to question staff accused of abuse.
She freely admitted that she had briefly raised her voice to be heard above the clamour and, when the girl swore, raised her hand in a ‘stop’ gesture.
Miss Kemal, unwittingly, had provided the council the stick it wanted in order to beat her. Extraordinarily, it decided that the raised hand and voice constituted child abuse, or common assault. Now it set about gathering further ‘evidence’.
A manager knew about the father’s mental illness and alleged domestic violence, but interviewed the girl in her father’s presence. The unhappy, confused teenager confirmed her father’s allegations.
Experts observe that she was likely to have come under great pressure from her father and, indeed, she later retracted her accusation and offered to give evidence for Miss Kemal. No matter, on the next day, December 1, a divisional manager suspended her.
Miss Kemal returned to the family home in North London cowed, mystified and terrified. The manager had announced a full-scale Section 47 child-abuse investigation which would mean that Haringey would later turn their attention to Miss Kemal’s daughter, who is now 13.
‘I reacted like normal families react - with anger and disbelief,’ says Miss Kemal.
‘What was so terribly wrong is that a system that had the power and the duty
to protect children was now hounding me for trying to protect children. It was
like I was in a fascist country. I felt totally alone.’
After Christmas I learnt that they would be investigating my daughter. ‘My daughter is my world, I adore her, it was such an injustice, a farce. By launching this type of investigation - and to this day I don’t know exactly what they did or who they spoke to - it means that the child is at risk. It’s an understatement to say I cried. I cried a river. Even now I cry thinking about it. How dare they cover their own failures by accusing me of abuse?
‘It has made me a more sensitive social worker, I hope. I now know how ordinary families feel if wrongly accused.
'I was so frightened of losing her that I would hold her like when she was a baby and just cling to her, just looking at how beautiful she was and is and think how in the world can these human beings, these professionals, my former colleagues, accuse me of hurting my own child.’
Christmas at the Kemal house was tense, and the social worker’s devout mother prayed hard, often in tears.
Miss Kemal’s 71-year-old immigrant mother was from a simple background. She had raised her children to do good and speak up for what they believed in, and she could not bear to see her hard-working, once successful daughter too anxious and scared even to eat.
Their home filled with legal papers and accusations that she could not understand.
She was incredulous that, with so many children in Britain in obviously desperate need, Social Services had nothing better to do than hound her child, who had helped so many.
The family’s mortification was complete when, on January 11, 2005, two police officers turned up unannounced at their home.
They cautioned Miss Kemal for an alleged ‘common assault’ on a child and told her to accompany them to the police station. But she refused to be questioned there ‘like a criminal’. She had worked with one officer on several cases, and they agreed to question her at home.
She concluded that the police were trying to help her get Haringey off her back; once the tape was off, they hinted she had already been exonerated.
Sure enough, three days later, police told Social Services there were no grounds for prosecution. Yet Haringey’s investigation continued: more safety checks were now ordered on her own child.
The family doctor and school denied there were any concerns but Miss Kemal’s stomach knotted with nerves when she stood at the school gates. She was terrified other parents would discover she was under investigation for child abuse.
She felt unable to ask children back to play with her child, and the whole family became isolated.
In March, Haringey’s investigator submitted her conclusions: she felt the 14-year-old girl was under pressure from her mother to retract the allegation against Miss Kemal. She believed the original allegation and that the girl’s father was protective and supportive.
Miss Kemal was now told she faced the sack. Her union, Unison, criticised management for still failing to specify the charge.
The union pointed out to the council that child abuse could mean many things.
The union said: ‘You know that “child abuse” is a very emotive and damaging thing to be accused of. We feel that Nevres’s human rights have been breached.’
The teenage girl who Miss Kemal had been accused of abusing begged to be reinterviewed, and wrote an apologetic letter to her.
It read: ‘Dear Nevi, I’m so sorry your [sic] in so much trouble. You always stood by me and watched my back. I hope that you will forgive me some day.’
The girl told Unison representative Pauline Bradley that ‘Nevi never done anything to me and I want all this to end.’
She courageously turned up, unexpectedly, at Miss Kemal’s four-day disciplinary hearing in October 2005, and insisted on addressing it. But management ignored her her pleas were declared by the panel to be ‘in our view not credible’.
Miss Kemal was found guilty of misusing her position; inappropriate behaviour (shouting); and failure to conduct herself appropriately. She was given a final warning because the most serious charge against her - of physical and verbal aggression - was ‘unproven’.
Haringey at this stage allowed Miss Kemal back to work, but not in Child Protection, her area of expertise.
Fearing that management would soon frame her again, she entered a claim for discrimination at an employment tribunal.
Early last year, Watford Employment Tribunal found in her favour by default, after Haringey failed to appear but later the council challenged that decision. The council dragged the case out for another year before settling out of court.
Miss Kemal says: ‘I said to Sharon Shoesmith, “You can take everything from me: my home, my job, my good name but you cannot strip me of my integrity, I’m not going to shut up. You don’t know what is going on in Social Services, what is being concealed from you."
‘I am sure she was misled by her managers. They are the ones that have to go. When Baby P, died I felt ashamed of us all. I feel ashamed of social work managers and ordinary social workers and I feel in all this the real issue is being lost, that this little boy is rotting in a grave somewhere.
‘How many if onlys are we going to go through, how many inquiries? Someone, somewhere, collectively has to take responsibility.’
Haringey Council said in a statement: ‘Nevres Kemal was employed as a Senior Social Work Practitioner in the Referral and Assessment Team in August 2004. In October 2004 she raised concerns about a particular case. The matter was investigated. No breach of the statutory child protection procedures occurred and children were not at risk.
‘The Commission for Social Care inspection has confirmed in a statement today that it was satisfied that the council had dealt properly with the individual case raised by Ms Kemal.
‘Ms Kemal was subsequently suspended over a separate matter following an external complaint. She was dismissed in March 2007, caused by a breakdown of trust and confidence based on a substantial number of employment-related disputes over the course of her employment.
‘An employment tribunal last year was settled without a hearing, with no admission of liability by the council. Nevres Kemal did not win her case in the ET [employment tribunal] nor did any tribunal make any findings concerning alleged whistleblowing.’