Written by: Brian Williams
Frank Beck & the culture of disbelief
The 1992 Leicestershire Inquiry chaired by Andrew Kirkwood QC looked into allegations of abuse and maltreatment at a number of children’s homes in Leicestershire. The officer in charge of the homes was Frank Beck.
Frank Beck was first appointed the officer in charge of a children’s home in Market Harborough in 1973 and remained within the employment of Leicestershire County Council as the officer in charge of children’s homes until his resignation in March 1986.
Allegations against Frank Beck were first raised in 1989 when a former resident of the Ratcliffe Road Children’s Home told her family’s social worker of her experiences. The police investigated and arrests were made in May 1990. The police investigations identified 600 potential witnesses who were traced and witness statements were taken from 383. Of the former residents who were interviewed, many spoke of systematic physical mistreatment and sexual assault.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Frank Beck, a former Royal Marine who had become a qualified child-care worker, was considered to be one of the most gifted residential social workers of his generation. However on 29th November 1991 Beck was found guilty on 17 counts of sexual and physical assault, including four counts of buggery and one count of rape. He received five life sentences and died in prison.
Frank Beck remains Britain’s most notorious child abuser and is believed to have abused over 200 children during a 13-year period.
Following the criminal trials the Secretary of State for Health announced the setting up of two inquiries. A national inquiry chaired by Norman Warner and a legally chaired inquiry. The inquiry found, based upon the evidence, that in Beck’s successive care homes there was a regime of sexual, physical and emotional abuse and highlighted the failings within the system that allowed this regime to emerge and continue. The inquiry also found that Beck, wholly unqualified in psychiatry or psychotherapy, with the knowledge of senior managers, had practiced an unusual and abusive form of ‘regression therapy’ which had a deeply adverse affect on the children involved.
The main question has been how Frank Beck got away with his crimes for so long? Why was he seen to be indispensable to his senior managers in Leicestershire social services? Why was he considered an expert? Why was Beck allowed to abuse for so long? With the renewed controversy over the North Wales Waterhouse inquiry some allegations common to both scandals are already apparent.
One is that Masonic influence at the top of councils at the time undermined the efficiency of their management. Another is that the abusers had political influence shielding them from police investigations. A third is that the inspection and management of the homes was weak to the point of being non-existent.
Frank Beck combined being a violent bully with sexual abuse. He not only regularly assaulted the children in his homes, he also allowed a colleague, Colin Fiddaman (who was to commit suicide in Amsterdam, whilst ‘on the run’, in 1991) to run a torture regime. He also intimidated his staff to such an extent that they were not just terrified of him but were actually moulded into believing that Beck was acting in the best interests of the children in his care. Most of Beck’s colleagues were unaware of the sexual abuse that was going on but all were fully aware of the beatings that Beck inflicted on the children in his care. However there is no evidence that any of his staff members did anything to stop it.
A regime of terror
Beck had established an esteemed reputation among his professional peers as an innovative, dynamic and extraordinarily effective practitioner in dealing with the emotional and behavioural complexities of troubled young people placed in his charge. This was combined with sharp intellect, eloquence and critical ability. All the evidence suggests that despite holding only a ‘middle management’ grade within the hierarchy of Leicestershire social services Frank Beck dominated his department. His apparent conviction that everything he did was both correct and necessary for the care of the children appears to have heavily influenced both his staff and the managers meant to be overseeing him. It was said at his trial that Beck had physically and sexually abused male members of staff at his homes, sustaining ‘a regime of terror’ for 13 years.
It is clear that some of Beck’s managers were guilty of the most serious gross negligence. It is not merely that they failed to supervise him properly or to monitor his behaviour. Their real sin was in ignoring and being over-sceptical about the repeated complaints they received about Beck throughout his period of running care homes. The inquiry found it had been outsiders who questioned Beck’s methods. Sometimes complaints arose from students on placement, on other occasions it was from temporary workers. However the majority of complaints of abuse came from children who had run away from the homes. Whatever the source of the allegation no person in authority believed the repeated allegations of physical violence and sexual assault against Beck.
In my view what lay at the heart of the management failings was the perceived indispensability of Frank Beck in dealing with the emotional and behavioural complexities of the troubled young people placed in his charge. Some of the children were there because of family breakdowns, often to give respite support to parents who could not cope, others because they were related to other children already in Beck’s care. However many of the children were seen as hardened criminals – teenage prostitutes, joyriders, drug users and glue sniffers. These children were given to Beck because no one else could control them and Beck could. Young criminals who had a record of violent assaults would become well behaved in his care; habitual absconders would stop running away. Consciously or unconsciously, managers simply did not want to know how Beck got his results merely that he achieved them.
Part of the reason why Beck achieved control was through his home grown ‘regression therapy’, which was to be described by the prosecuting barrister in Beck’s final court case as ‘the veil behind which the perverts took their pleasure’. The so-called therapy involved children being dressed in nappies and bathed by adults.
The justification was that this would ‘regress’ the children to an earlier period in their lives when their ‘basic fault’ in character had been caused – often because of sexual abuse by parents or carers – and allow the child to re-build their personality.
The reality was completely different with no attempt was made at reconstructing personalities. Affection was given sporadically, but was overwhelmed by sheer physical violence. Children were provoked – by name-calling, undermining, tickling and assault – until they threw temper tantrums. This, in turn, gave care workers, hand picked by Beck the excuse to physically restrain children and, in many cases, to sexually abuse them.
Frank Beck was not a qualified psychoanalyst, but he was effective at presenting an image that he was. To his managers, unschooled in psychology and psychiatry, words like ‘regression’, ‘basic fault’, and ‘nurturing’ sounded impressive. Beck would quote liberally from experts such as Freud, Bettelheim, Balint and Dockar-Drysdale, apparently proving that his treatment was academically founded and clinically proven. Such was the force of Becks personality and extraordinary charisma that his methods were not questioned by his managers.
According to the book Abuse of Trust on the Beck case by Mark D’Arcy and Paul Gosling:
‘Yet regression therapy received widespread praise, backed by statistics indicating that out-of-control young people had learned to behave. A television documentary was shown and articles were published in the specialist press. Beck became an adviser – to the social work course at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), to the Metropolitan Police training college at Hendon and to Greater Manchester police – on how to deal with young criminals.’
‘I don’t know what he’s doing, but he’s doing it well’
Beck’s first director of social services was Dorothy Edwards, who, when questioned about Beck’s ‘regression therapy’ said: ‘I don’t know quite what he’s doing, but he’s doing it very well.’
Another element in the failure to discipline Beck was his prominence as a Liberal later Liberal Democrat district councillor. Also at the time, Leicestershire’s chief executive, its chief constable, several senior police officers, the Conservative group leader and other senior Tory councillors were all Freemasons.
The key element in the Beck case and in North Wales is the allegations arose overwhelmingly from the children in care. However the culture at the time among social workers, police officers, politicians and journalists was that children in care homes habitually lied and simply could not be trusted. This culture of disbelief shielded Frank Beck and others like him. It is likely that hundreds and probably thousands of children in care since 1945 have been sexually and physically abused in the very shelters that were supposed to protect them. It is one of the most tragic episodes in British history.