"I was sexually abused every weekend for six months”: Young victim of Edinburgh secure unit abuse asks why lessons have not been learned

A woman who was sexually abused as a teenager in an Edinburgh secure unit says the latest investigation into the city's secure accommodation found many of the same issues as the report on her case 15 years ago.

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Holly Hamilton was targeted by care worker Gordon Collins in St Katharine's secure unit in 2006 when she was 15.

He gave her sweets, hugged, kissed and groped her. She said: "I was sexually abused every weekend by Gordon Collins for around six months.”

But it was only 10 year later, in 2016, that he was eventually jailed for abusing her and three other children at two separate homes.

A serious case review in 2017 concluded there had been grounds to dismiss Collins previously and said the abuse was not believed when first reported because staff thought the victims were causing trouble or attention-seeking.

But it also raised concerns about the use of restraint at the home, children being isolated and other sanctions – all issues which were also referred to by the recent internal council investigation into St Katharine's and the city's other secure unit Howdenhall.

The latest report found there had been "illegality, injustice and maladministration" dating back more than a decade at the two homes, both run by Edinburgh Secure Services, part of the council's children and families department.

Holly Hamilton says it sounds as if little has changed.

There were no allegations of sexual abuse in the latest report, but among the issues it did list were inappropriate restraint, children being locked in their rooms for hours, unexplained loss of privileges and young people being denied food.

Ms Hamilton, now 31, said: “This has been going on for decades. This new report says it has been happening within the last ten years, but things like this have been happening the ten years before that and the ten years before that.

"And it just seems to be recommendation after recommendation, every ten years the same recommendations but nothing ever changes.

"How many generations of broken children does this system need to create?"

Holly Hamilton says restraint is used too readily.

The detailed report of the recent investigation, which was prompted by a whistleblower complaint in 2020, has not been published but it is understood to highlight inappropriate restraint, assaults on young people, abusive language, children being isolated and a toxic management culture.

One source told the Evening News the main focus was on inappropriate violent restraint and staff not following proper guidelines in dealing with the young people.

"It portrays really bad practice and an aggressive atmosphere, lots of verbal abuse, people being belittled, unexplained removal of privileges, people getting locked in their rooms for hours, people being denied food.”

The serious case review (SCR), dated April 2017, into Ms Hamilton’s case said: “The young people at [St Katharine’s] were at risk from punitive and sometimes painful measures of control by staff members. Many were also subject to isolation and removal of personal possessions, often unnecessarily and often for unnecessarily long periods. We consider this practice abusive."

The review described “over-zealous discipline and control” as a persistent problem at St Katharine’s.

And it noted: “The aggressive regime at [St Katharine’s] within which abuse was able to occur were known to the local authority (or would have been very evident to those wishing to enquire).”

Ms Hamilton said: “I was never restrained in there, but there was always the threat. You're a young person, you're in secure for a reason, which is nine times out of ten because you're a risk to yourself; you've got a lot of emotional issues.

"As a young person – 13, 14, 15 – you don’t necessarily always have the tools to express yourself in a normal way as adults would, you're going to shout out of frustration or anger because you don’t know how to properly communicate how you’re feeling.

“The minute you started shouting it was always the number one threat: if you don’t calm down we're going to restrain you. But you just wanted someone to listen to you.

“I saw a girl who was 14 or 15, but was very small-framed, with five members of staff sitting on top of her, twisting her about the place. She was absolutely screaming, being manhandled by five grown adults out of a room.

“I get that restraint is sometimes needed in the job, but why is it the automatic go-to? Where is the conflict resolution, where is the trying to talk and diffuse the situation?”

She said it sounded from the latest report as if little had changed.

And she pointed out an inquiry into abuse in Edinburgh children’s homes in 1998 had also identified inappropriate restraint as an issue.

"This seems the common thing with Edinburgh council – everything slowly gets swept under the carpet, lies for a few years and then comes out in an explosive bang five or ten years down the line.”

Holly’s distressing story of being abused and not believed

Holly Hamilton was sent to Edinburgh’s Northfield children’s home when she was 14 after her parents split up and then moved to St Katharine’s secure unit for her own safety after her behaviour deteriorated and she attempted suicide.

Gordon Collins had worked at Northfield and later moved to St Katharine’s. The abuse started with hugs and kisses.

“Then he moved to biting me on the neck, hands down my top, hands down my bottoms. It happened in my bedroom, in the corridors, the gym hall. Basically, any time he could get me by myself. It got to the point that he was coming to my bedroom every time he was on shift.”

His behaviour came to light after other girls in the unit found Ms Hamilton’s diary and read about his unwanted sexual advances.

Ms Hamilton said it felt “horrendous” when staff refused to believe her.

She carved her abuser’s initials in her thigh with a razor blade.

“I cut open my arms and wrote on the wall in blood that nobody believed me. I was made to clean that off after they bandaged me up.

"The police got involved but at that time they concluded that it was my word against his and nothing happened.”

It was only in 2014 that police asked her once more about the abuse and two years later Collins was jailed for six years. His sentence was increased to 10 years after an unsuccessful appeal.

Appeal court judge Lord Brodie said Collins “committed an appalling series of offences involving the predatory sexual abuse of four vulnerable teenaged girls” when he was in a position of trust and had shown no remorse.

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