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Victims of abuse speak out to support claims of systematic cruelty at Croydon children's home Shirley Oaks


VICTIMS of abuse at Shirley Oaks have come forward to support claims of systemic cruelty at the former children's home.

Those who have spoken out, some for the first time, described being subjected to physical, emotional and sexual mistreatment, in some cases on an almost daily basis.

Most felt compelled to speak after author Alex Wheatle, 51, said he was sexually assaulted while living in the Lambeth-run children's home between 1966 and 1978.

They were also angered by claims, made by a Shirley Oaks historian and former resident, that the abuse was not endemic.

The Advertiser has spoken to seven victims since last week's report into cruelty at the children's home, which closed in 1983.

Each described the harrowing experiences they faced while growing up in the care system, both in Shirley Oaks and, in some cases, elsewhere.

They feel strongly that Operation Middleton, the joint police and council investigation into abuse at children's homes in south London between 1974 and 1994, did not go far enough.

Three people were jailed as a result of the operation, which found 16 alleged abusers had died and 19 others "could not be identified".

All six children from the Gocan family were placed there after their father left the country and their mother had a breakdown in 1967. For more than a decade Pauline Gocan, 50, has been fighting for answers as to why she was sexually abused by visitors to the children's home. She was inspired to speak out this week by Mr Wheatle's account of being abused by a doctor.

Shirley Oaks is one of three Lambeth-run children's homes the Daily Mirror has linked to an alleged paedophile ring thought to involve an unnamed MP in Tony Blair's government.

Those allegations include claims the unnamed politician took boys out of South Vale children's home in West Norwood in the 1980s.

Some of the people who agreed to speak to the Advertiser this week detailed how they were sexually abused by mysterious figures who were regular visitors to the home.

Others described being subject to frequent beatings, verbal abuse and punishments seemingly designed to humiliate and grind down the human spirit. Most felt unable to speak out at the time and have faced an almost impossible task of holding the authorities to account decades later.

What is also clear is the long-lasting impact of even the mistreatment which might be thought of as less serious.

Some of those who went on the record, now in their late 40s to early 50s, have problems with alcohol or drugs. Few are in work and most find it very difficult to form relationships.

Many still have nightmares and others have sought therapy. At one stage or another several have been in trouble with the law. Leigh Gocan has twice been convicted of armed robbery.

Perhaps most troubling is the example of his sister Yvonne Burdon, who has had all three of her children taken away from her and put into care. "History is repeating itself," she said.

All of those who experienced ill-treatment at Shirley Oaks still bear the emotional and, in some cases, physical scars.

They reacted strongly when Gerry Coll, who went to the care home at the same time as Mr Wheatle and later co-authored a book on the history of the institution, said it was "in no way rampant with sexual abuse".

Despite coming under fire this week, Mr Coll has written an open letter to the Advertiser reiterating his opinions.

Kevin Donnelly, who was in care at the same time as Mr Coll, is among those convinced that abuse was widespread at Shirley Oaks.

"The systematic physical, mental and sexual abuse that many children, including myself, suffered at the hands of people in charge of our so called care was horrific," he said in a letter to the Advertiser.

Mr Donnelly, who now lives in Eastbourne, is one of the victims who was eventually able to see his abuser jailed as a result of Operation Middleton.

He said: "Because of the court case I had to eventually face my demons, tell my wife and family what had happened to me as a child after all those years, and I suffered a breakdown soon after.

"I have tried hard to settle down and move on with my life, but it will always be in the back of my mind as it will for all those who suffered the same fate."

Middleton officers investigated 78 allegations of sexual abuse and 46 reports of cruelty or assault, leading to 16 arrests, four charges, three convictions and a death during a trial.

As a result of media coverage of historical sexual abuse, police received two further allegations in November 2012. A 63-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of a sexual offence against a minor and a 78-year-old woman was detained on suspicion of perverting the course of justice and child cruelty.

Both have been bailed pending further investigation. It is not clear whether these allegations relate to Shirley Oaks. Anyone who wishes to report an allegation of historic sexual abuse is urged to contact the police on 020 7161 0500. If you can help with the Advertiser's investigation email gareth.davies@croydonadvertiser.co.uk

Victims of abuse speak out to support claims of systematic cruelty at Croydon children's home Shirley Oaks

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