Suffer the little children

A new BBC drama has reawakened the controversy over alleged satanic rituals involving the abuse of children particularly in the light of the Orkney scandal. Television writer Michael Eaton tells Eddie Gibb the

system itself is at fault.

t’s more than five years since police and social workers conducted dawn raids on families living on South Ronaldsay and removed nine children they alleged were victims of sexual abuse by a satanic cult. Although it was the most widely publicised, there were several other instances in England where social services became sufficiently convinced of the existence of organised ‘satanic rings’ to remove children from their families.

Six weeks after the children were taken in Orkney, the sheriff overturned the decision as ‘flawed’, and the families were reunited. Later that year, Lord Clyde’s judicial inquiry criticised police, social workers and Orkney islands Council over their handling of the case; the council’s director of social work was suspended and later resigned, and earlier this year four families involved received an apology and undisclosed compensation after a two-year court battle.

That much is fact, but the case raised issues which still reverberate within the child care profession, particularly how much weight should be put on the testimony of children themselves when they ‘disclose’ allegations of

18 The List 18-31 Oct 1996

abuse. Much of the evidence used to support the decision to remove children in satanic cases around Britain was based on ‘recovered memory’. where recollections of abuse believed to be buried in the subconscious are teased out through prolonged interviews with children. Those who remained sceptical about the existence of organised ritual abuse argued that these ‘memories’ were planted by suggestive questioning. Michael Eaton, a television writer

‘While people were looking for Satan, they weren’t looking for the more mundane and equally terrifying cases oi physical and sexual child abuse that were going on all around them.’

who researched many of the cases surrounding satanic abuse for the powerful BBC2 drama Flowers Of The Forest, describes the removal of children from their families under these circumstances as a modern-day ‘witch-hunt’ with medieval parallels. ‘I agree with those people who think that this is paranoia produced by the therapists and the social workers themselves,’ he says.

Although inspired by allegations of satanic abuse around the country, including Eaton’s own home town of Nottingham, Flowers Of The Forest is not based on any single case. However the fact that it is set in an imaginary Scottish town has inevitably led to the film being connected most strongly with Orkney. Eaton says he chose to locate the drama in Scotland because the differing legal system of children’s panels under which social workers operate lent itself to a heightened sense of drama. It is not, he says emphatically, Orkney in disguise.

The tone of the drama makes Eaton’s position very clear; he believes social workers are poorly trained and badly managed, leaving them open to extreme ‘ideologies’ which allowed the scare about ritual abuse to gain credibility, despite the lack of corroborating physical evidence of the existence of satanic abuse networks. (No one, least of all Eaton, denies that child abuse can involve rituals the key question is whether it is organised and systematic.)

‘l heard reports from these weekend conferences that [social workers] would go on and nowhere was there any critical or sceptical material about this phenomenon,’ he says. ‘You either had to believe it or not believe it. It was an article of faith and those people who couldn’t accept it came into conflict with those who did.’

In Flowers Of The Forest, the central characters represent this professional conflict. After attending a course on satanic abuse, Janet (Lia Williams) is convinced that one of her former cases bears its hallmarks. The teenage girl in a family is already known to have been abused by her father. Janet believes her two younger siblings are also being abused and pushes for their removal from the family. Her colleague Magda (Susan Vidler) is not convinced, offering a more prosaic explanation for the children’s disturbed behaviour.

Backing Janet’s position is the New Morning Trust, a creepy Christian organisation which promotes what Eaton refers to as the ‘satanic panic’. This seems the most far-fetched aspect of the drama. although to be fair to Baton such organisations are more common in America, where he argues many of the theories about satanic abuse and recovered memory originated.

‘A lot of social workers never went on one of these weekend courses l depict in the film, but nonetheless they got their ideas from those sources.’ he says. ‘lt came over from America and spread like wildfire through the social work profession. And while people were looking for Satan, they weren’t looking for the more mundane and equally terrifying cases of physical and sexual child abuse that were going on all around them.’

The strength of Flowers Of The Forest is the way it does not allow the conflict between the two sides to descend into straightforward goodies versus baddies. The audience is never quite clear who to believe, which emphasises the difficulty of proving any form of child abuse.

However a revelation near the end of the drama suggests Magda, the sceptical social worker, is motivated by personal rather than professional considerations after all, which within the terms of the drama serves to effectively undermine the standing of the entire profession. That may be Eaton’s purpose, but it’s a pity that a drama about a satanic conspiracy ends up demonising people. Flowers Of The Forest is shown on Sat 26 Oct on BBC2.