Children in the care of Lambeth Council were subjected to “levels of cruelty and sexual abuse that are hard to comprehend”, an inquiry into historical child abuse has found.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s report said the council exposed children to situations where they were at risk of sexual abuse and knowingly kept staff who were a threat to children.

The inquiry looked at five children’s homes: Shirley Oaks, Angell Road, South Vale Assessment Centre, Ivy House and Monkton Street.

It found that by June 2020, Lambeth Council had received complaints from 705 former residents at three of the homes, but only one senior employee had been disciplined in over 40 years.

One of the council’s biggest care homes, Shirley Oaks, received allegations of abuse against 177 staff members or people linked to the home. Up to 350 children lived at the home in Croydon until its closure in 1983.

The report described Shirley Oaks and South Vale homes as “brutal places where violence and sexual assault were allowed to flourish”.

At Angell Road, children – including those under the age of five – were systematically exposed to sexual abuse, the inquiry found. It said that the true scale of the sexual abuse against children will never be known, but is certain to be significantly higher than has been formally recorded.

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The inquiry is also calling for a criminal investigation to be considered into the handling of the case of a child who died in care.

It found that after a resident was found dead in the bathroom at Shirley Oaks in 1977, Lambeth Council failed to inform the coroner that the resident had alleged he was sexually abused by his “house father” at the home.

The inquiry is recommending the Metropolitan Police consider whether there are grounds for a criminal investigation in this case.

The report findings are based on 19 days of public hearings held last summer. It is one of three investigations by the inquiry into the response by local authorities to allegations of child sexual abuse, alongside Rochdale and Nottinghamshire.

The report makes four recommendations, including vetting checks for current foster carers, and mandatory training on safeguarding for elected councillors.

Lambeth Council has accepted that it failed children in its care, and apologised to the inquiry.