“I saw him say that the Catholic Church in Ireland had lost all credibility’ because of their attempts to sweep child abuse under the carpet, and I thought that if he was brave enough to be so outspoken about the Catholics, surely he was going to apologise for what happened to me in his Church, too.”
At the time, Teresa, 43, was just days away from meeting the Archbishop’s deputies. They would agree to pay her substantial damages for her claims of having been forcibly drugged, abused and sexually assaulted as a teenager in a children’s home run by the Church of England in the Eighties.
It would be the breakthrough moment in her 18-year campaign to get recognition for her horrific ordeal and, listening to the Archbishop, she believed she’d finally get the apology she craved. “But he said nothing,” says Teresa. “I just sat there, tears streaming down my face, thinking: The gall of the man!’ The home where I was abused, Kendall House, was in Kent, right under his nose, so I can’t believe he doesn’t know about me.”
Teresa’s medical files show that by the time she’d left Kendall House, aged 16, she’d been sedated 1,248 times with doses of tranquillisers and anti-depressants designed for adult schizophrenics and Parkinson’s disease sufferers, despite never having the conditions.
She later had three children with birth defects, which she believes were caused by the drugs. One son, now 24, was born with respiratory problems; her second son, 21, was visually impaired; and her 17-year-old daughter, Sarah, was born with a cleft palate, which has since been operated on.
Earlier this month, the Church agreed an “out-of-court settlement” with Teresa, but no amount was mentioned, no apology given. The Diocese of Rochester issued a terse statement: “No admission of liability is made. It is our fervent hope that the settlement agreed will assist Teresa Cooper to move forward with her life.”
But Teresa has no intention of drawing a line under the affair. Speaking exclusively to the Standard at her three-bedroom semi near Chelmsford in Essex, she says the settlement of “over £50,000” is significant, “not because of the money” but because “it’s an acknowledgement that something happened to me that should never have happened”.
Surrounded by stacks of files, she says: “All I’ve ever wanted is an admission of guilt and an apology, and for the Church and Wandsworth Council — who were my legal guardians — to investigate what happened and the long-term impact of those drugs.”
Teresa was taken into care at six months old, away from her violent, alcoholic father and incompetent mother, and she spent her childhood being moved between foster and children’s homes with intermittent returns to her parents’ flat in Putney, west London.
By 1981, when she was enrolled at Kendall House in Gravesend, aged 14, she had never lived for more than three years in one place. It was to be her longest and most horrific placement. “I will never forget my first day at Kendall House,” she says.
“I arrived with my social worker at 4pm. I thought I was going to a nice home in the country, but the place was built like a prison: bars and hard plastic on the windows, reinforced glass and wire mesh on the doors.” It was a secure unit for 18 extremely disturbed teenagers, where, through a combination of incompetence and bureaucratic confusion, Teresa, who had no history of violence, was sent.
“The next morning,” she continues, “they told me to line up for tablets, but when I asked what they were for, they wouldn’t say and I became agitated.
“I saw Dr Marenthiran Perinpanayagam, a psychiatrist from Sri Lanka, who sat there sipping his tea and, after speaking to me for five minutes and shouting at me because I refused to sit down, upped my dosage. I’ll never forget his chilling words. He said he was going to bring out my true colours’.
“At first I felt relaxed and sedated, but after a few days I couldn’t focus and was falling asleep in lessons, which were held in-house. I started cutting my arms just to feel something. The colour just drained out of my life.
“At the slightest provocation, the nurses would pile in and inject me with more drugs and knock me out cold. I would hallucinate, seeing triangles with wings flying and imagining that huge insects were climbing up my bed.” Years later, she would discover that Dr Perinpanayagam, who died in 1988, had written to the British Medical Journal describing his “experiments with tranquilisers on behaviourally disturbed girls”.
Kendall House was closed down in 1986, two years after she left, when a government report expressed “extreme concern” at the “administration of psychotropic drugs”, and said girls were “stripped of basic human rights”.
There was one period, recalls Teresa, when she was in “sickbay” and confined to her tiny room, with just a sink and a bed for 163 consecutive days, her isolation broken only by unwelcome visits from male staff. “I would awake in my half-drugged state to men raping me.
“At first I thought I was hallucinating, but in the morning I would be torn and bleeding. To this day I don’t know the regularity of it, which is probably for the best because I’d probably have killed myself if I did.”
She did report her injuries at the time, and a letter from the doctor who examined her — dated February 23, 1983 and seen by the Standard — says unequivocally: “I enclose a copy of a swab taken from Teresa Cooper. It is likely that she has been sexually abused.” She was just 16, but nobody at Kendall House acted on the letter.
Nothing was done.
By the time Teresa left for a foster home a few months before her 17th birthday, she was so traumatised, and had missed regular schooling for so long, she was barely able to read or write.
She fell pregnant at 18 and, “driven to learn how to be a mother when I’d had no mothering”, began, with the help of a friend, to read obsessively.
Later she took adult-education classes in English, maths and IT.
But it was only in her mid-twenties that she found the strength to investigate her past. “Tracking down my files was a nightmare because nobody knew where they were,” she says. “Eventually I discovered Wandsworth Council had them, but it refused to release them, so I backed off for a few years and waited for the personnel to change.”
Meanwhile the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme refused to compensate her because they said she was “out of time”, and her call for a Kent Police investigation fell on deaf ears.
The turning point came when Teresa decided, one day, to return to Wandsworth Council’s offices.
She casually asked for her files and was astounded when they were handed over without any argument. It was the breakthrough she needed. The files showed she’d been given cocktails of drugs — including valium, diazepam and sparine — at up to 10 times the recommended dosages.
They also revealed she was drugged on average more than once a day for the entire 32 months that she was there. She took the documents to the BBC, who showed her medical file to experts and broadcast her story on a BBC2 news programme.
Suddenly people started taking her seriously.
Her memoir, Trust No One, published by Orion in 2007, flushed out 19 other Kendall House “survivors” who got in touch, she says, and began to share their horrific stories of drug abuse and birth defects in their children, too.
Her success against the Church this month has spurred her to widen her sights and call for a full investigation into what happened at Kendall House, not just to her but the other girls, too. “What are the odds 19 girls from the same place all have children with birth defects?” she asks. “We don’t all live under a pylon. We must have a full review.”
But fighting the system for 18 years has taken its toll. “I only sleep about four hours a night,” says Teresa, slumping forward on the table, her head in her hands. “I work on my campaign 20 hours a day. It’s emotionally and physically draining.
“The toll on my personal life has been massive. I’ve never married, I have a problem trusting men.” She refuses to discuss who fathered her children.
“I’m proud of my children — my eldest son is a public servant, my second is a chef and my daughter is at college — but it must be hard for them to have a mother who wakes up screaming.
“I spend every birthday in my room, crying my eyes out — the pain of my childhood rushes back too strong.
“You see, this fight is what keeps me sane. Some of those vile nurses and people who maltreated me at Kendall House are still working for the Church. I am determined they will be held responsible for what they did.
“Eventually somebody in the Church or the Government will have the courage to take this on and I will get my investigation and the truth will come out.” She looks at me sharply. “I will not rest until that day.”