A major investigation has been launched into the Royal National Institute of Blind People and one of its subsidiaries after an allegation of “sexually abusive practice” at a residential centre for children.
The charity’s chief executive, Sally Harvey, immediately resigned as the Charity Commission began an inquiry into the Pears Centre for Specialist Learning near Coventry, following several other serious incidents last year, reported by The Guardian.
The investigation into the RNIB comes amid questions about the management of charities, with Oxfam and other charitable organisations criticised recently over allegations of abuse and sexual exploitation of children.
The Pears Centre allegation was reported to the police, who are taking no further action.
Eleanor Southwood, the chair of the RNIB, said the charity had ordered an urgent review and it was deeply concerned about the allegations. “We take this extremely seriously and we have a plan that will support the children first and foremost,” she said.
“I am profoundly sorry that we have let down a group of children whose families have entrusted them to our care.”
In a statement, the Charity Commission said the incidents raised concerns that the subsidiary charity “may have consistently failed to comply” with regulations designed to protect vulnerable children.
Harvey Grenville, the watchdog’s head of investigations, said: “The first priority of the trustees of both charities must now be to ensure that the vulnerable young people cared for at the centre are protected from harm. The charities have already taken some immediate steps in order to do so.”
The Pears Centre is a school and children’s home for young people who are blind or partially sighted and also have multiple disabilities or complex needs, including severe or profound learning disabilities.
The site has five bungalows, each with six bedrooms. The school’s classrooms were specially designed to have space for physiotherapy and mobility equipment. The school has special music rooms and therapy rooms, and recently opened a hydrotherapy pool. Children can live at the school year-round.
The centre was established in 1957 and originally known as Rushton Hall school. It was reopened by Princess Anne in 2012 and named after the Pears Foundation, which funded its redevelopment.
The school was rated “outstanding” by Ofsted in 2013, but in its 2017 report, the regulator noted that “safeguarding is ineffective. The proprietor and governors have not ensured that systems are coordinated and cohesive, accessible and robust”.
Ofsted rated the Pears Centre “inadequate” in its most recent report, and earlier this month gave the RNIB notice that it would withdraw the children’s home registration unless there were significant changes.
The RNIB has faced difficulties in recent years, reporting a loss of £12.6m in its accounts last year. The accounts said “we have recognised that our financial trajectory was not sustainable”.
Late last year, 23 staff were made redundant from one department of the charity.
The Charity Commission said it would be working with Ofsted and other agencies during the investigation.
The RNIB was founded in 1868 as the British and Foreign Blind Association for Improving the Embossed Literature of the Blind.