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'They did things to me when they turned off the lights. Now I am petrified of the dark' - victims of abuse at Shirley Oaks Children's Home speak out

AFTER our report on author Alex Wheatle's allegations about Shirley Oaks Children's Home last week, three members of the same family today waive their legal right to anonymity to talk, for the first time, about the physical, emotional and sexual abuse they suffered at the Croydon home. They tell chief reporter Gareth Davies their stories...

"MY son once asked me why I leave the light on at night and I told him I do it because of my childhood," said 50-year-old Pauline Gocan.

"I didn't tell him it was because of Shirley Oaks. They did things to me when they turned the light off. Now I am petrified of the dark."

Pauline and her five brothers and sisters were placed at Shirley Oaks Children's Home in Wickham Road, Croydon, when their mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1967.

She suffered physical, emotional or sexual abuse at the hands of staff and visitors to the home, which rarely fell below 400 children on roll before it was closed in 1983.

This week Pauline, her brother Leigh, 53, and sister Yvonne, 48, have waived their legal right to anonymity to talk, for the first time, about their experiences. They are among half a dozen victims who agreed to speak to the Advertiser this week after reading author Alex Wheatle's account of being sexually assaulted by a doctor at the home run by Lambeth Council.

Their stories provide compelling evidence to support his claim, made in a national newspaper, of systemic abuse at Shirley Oaks, and their call for a new investigation.

Pauline met our reporter at her home in Brixton. Before describing her experiences at Shirley Oaks she asked Leigh to leave the room, as there are details she still feels unable to share with him. "I don't know where to start," she said. "I don't know how to put it into words. I don't have memories, I have nightmares."

When Pauline and her siblings first arrived at Shirley Oaks they were separated and placed among the 38 cottages where the children lived.

Only six years old at the time, she recalls being sexually abused by "big people" who would regularly visit the dormitory at night.

"They would come and do things," she said. "They would make us do things. They were sexually abusing me. When we were allowed out into the gardens, I would refuse to go back inside. Their response was to drag me back into the house and beat me. They used to hit me all the time. Sometimes it was the back of the hand, others a slipper. Beatings were all I knew. The house mother was a wicked woman."

Like other victims who have chosen to speak out, Pauline felt unable to tell anyone about what was happening – even the other children.

"I don't know why I didn't talk about it. Maybe it's because they were always threatening to lock me up. So I stayed silent and carried the shame with me until 2011."

It was only then, 35 years later, that her doctor advised her to seek counselling. The therapist was the first person she told about being sexually assaulted. "It helped me to say what I wanted to say without fear of being locked up," she explained.

A decade earlier, Pauline and several of her brothers and sisters spoke about some of their experiences to police officers assigned to Operation Middleton, an investigation into child abuse at several south London children's homes, including Shirley Oaks. "The police listened to me but I didn't get justice. Some did, but not me."

Pauline has since pursued every conceivable avenue to find answers and closure, including small claims court action against Lambeth Council and an appeal to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. She was offered £3,600. "I didn't take it, I thought it was an insult," she said.

She wrote to David Cameron, with no success, before a solicitor agreed to review her case, only to tell her she had exhausted all her options. A few months later, in a moment of despair, she shredded the paperwork she had collected over a 22-year period.

"I had done all that work but nothing had come of it," she said. "I saw the system as what it is. It's fraudulent and fake. I wanted to get rid of every piece of evidence that I had been a part of it. I destroyed it and tried to get on with my life."

Then, last week, she received a message from another victim. "Shirley Oaks is on the front page of the Mirror," it read. "Spread the word."

The spotlight was back on the children's home thanks to writer Alex Wheatle. The father of three said he was "convinced" a network of paedophiles were operating in the home and that "the authorities knew about it at the time but did nothing".

He described how "strange, nameless men" would visit the cottages, including a swimming instructor later convicted of abusing children at Shirley Oaks, including Pauline's sister.

"When I read the story I knew it was my opportunity to come forward," said Pauline, who rang the number at the end of the article and was advised by a reporter to contact the police.

Last Saturday, an officer visited her home to speak about her allegations. "It went very well. He said he couldn't promise anything, but that's the story of my life – there have never been any promises. I thought I had gone down all the legal avenues but the article has opened the way for me to come forward and say: 'I want justice'."

Whether or not Pauline and other victims will get the answers they are looking for is unclear. The recent public inquiry, set up to examine how public bodies dealt with sex abuse claims, has provided another glimmer of hope. For now they live with the long-term effects, not just of deliberate cruelty, but of a childhood in care.

"I was groomed to be a nasty person and my fight is not to be that way," said Pauline. "All the things that happened to me when they came into my bed during the night, and all the beatings I took, groomed me to be bad.

"I was a child brought up in the system and then left to fend for myself. I've made a lot of errors but I can admit my mistakes.

"Now it's time for those involved to do the same. It will only take one person to do what is right and maybe things can start to change."

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

'They did things to me when they turned off the lights. Now I am petrified of the dark' - victims of abuse at Shirley Oaks Children's Home speak out

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