Tuesday, March 11, 2008
A scandal waiting to happen
The basement of the former children's home in Saint-Martin, Jersey, where the police forensic team's excavation work has been taking place. Photograph: Alain Jocard/PA
The discovery of a child's skull at a former children's home on Jersey last month came as a shock to many on the UK mainland, who see the Channel island as a family-friendly holiday destination.
But for child protection experts, there was a depressingly familiar ring to the allegations of widespread sexual and physical abuse at the Haute de la Garenne home and throughout the island's care system.
During the 1990s, a number of high profile inquiries exposed major flaws in the care system - problems that allowed abuse in children's homes in England and Wales to go largely unpunished and unnoticed.
Reports into physical punishments in Leicestershire and physical and sexual abuse in that county, Staffordshire and north Wales raised concerns about the monitoring and inspection of children's homes.
The isolated locations of some homes, often cut off from the wider care system, helped to create a dangerous environment in which abuse was more likely to occur and continue.
The inquiries - most importantly the Waterhouse report into abuse in north Wales from the mid-70s to the mid-90s, led to improved training for and stricter vetting of care staff as well as better monitoring, including unannounced inspections.
However, the Jersey government says the island has no equivalent of Ofsted, the independent inspectorate for children's services in England.
"Given the size of the island, Jersey does not maintain its own separate inspection arrangements," a spokeswoman for the chief minister said.
"External inspections are outsourced for schools, using Ofsted-trained inspectors from the UK. In the case of child care services, there is currently no external regulation."
Tink Palmer, the director of the Stop it Now! child protection charity, said the lack of independent regulation in Jersey was "astonishing".
"I'm deeply concerned," she added. "The publicity given to Waterhouse and other similar inquiries in England and Wales over the last 20 years should have prompted Jersey to review their services. There is no excuse for ducking from that responsibility."
Roy Walker, of the Secure Accommodation Network, said it appeared the scandal on the island had been waiting to break, although he was "horrified" it had taken 30 years.
"Jersey is an example of how, without robust inspection and good management, poor practice and abuse can go unchallenged," he said.
"Inquiries have repeatedly said you must have a range of external systems in place to monitor staff and services and provide independent advocacy to children.
"From what I've heard, the abuse on Jersey appears to have been institutional. It seems to have been accepted, which reflects a system of management where staff were not encouraged to raise concerns – indeed, they seem to have been discouraged."
As a crown dependency with its own system of government, Jersey has no legal obligation to adopt the recommendations of mainland UK child protection inquiries.
Child protection experts believe this – along with the island's geographical isolation from the mainland – explains why standards of care are poor and decades out of date.
Wes Cuell, the director of children's services at the NSPCC, said: "Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are about 20 to 30 years behind the mainland in terms of their social work practice.
"They don't tend to monitor what's going on in the mainland as much as they might. There's been a long tradition of being very isolated and keeping things under wraps."
Cuell believes there has been some recognition by professionals and politicians in Jersey of a need to reform the system.
The NSPCC was invited to help reform the island's children's services in the late 90s, and one of its staff now sits on the Jersey child protection committee.
However, he acknowledges that the pace of reform has so far been slow.
More than 25 years ago, there was some recognition on Jersey that abused children might not be able to get help.
In 1982, the charity ChildLine was asked to set up a helpline on the mainland for Jersey children amid concerns a child would not be confident that a line run by islanders was confidential.
"It would have been problematic because those who staff the helpline are volunteers and Jersey is such a small place that there would have been a strong likelihood they would have known a caller," he said.
In 2002, the UK social worker and then Ofsted inspector Kathie Bull published a highly critical report on Jersey's childcare services, which called for the closure of the Les Chenes children's home.
The home later reopened as the Greenfields secure unit, only to face renewed criticism last year.
Simon Bellwood, another UK social worker, claimed he was sacked for blowing the whistle on the practice of holding children as young as 11 in solitary confinement there.
His case helped spark an inquiry into children's services on the island by the UK expert Andrew Williamson, who is due to publish his final report later this month.
Bellwood alleges that elements of the island's establishment have blocked proper scrutiny of children's services – a view shared by the Jersey senator Stuart Syvret, who was sacked from his post as health minister last year.
Prior to his dismissal, Syvret invited the Howard League for Penal Reform to investigate the island's youth custody services.
Another mainland expert, June Thoburn, the emeritus professor of social work at the University of East Anglia, has also been appointed as chair of the island's child protection committee.
Cuell believes the appointment of experts from the mainland to senior positions in children's services and the police is leading to a greater willingness to investigate allegations of abuse.
But anonymous sources told Community Care magazine this month that the Jersey government remains determined to cover up the problems in children's services, which has led to a failure to act on Bull's report.
In a statement about Syvret's dismissal, the chief minister of Jersey, Frank Walker, said: "The council of ministers has not seen any objective evidence to significantly call into question current practices."
Last week, Walker accused Syvret of trying to "shaft Jersey internationally" by publicising allegations of abuse.
Eileen Munro, a reader in social policy at the London School of Economics, expressed concern that the Jersey authorities still appeared to be in denial about the scandal.
"People in Jersey should search their consciences as to whether they should have addressed this problem years ago," she said. "Even now, they seem so begrudging of the allegations coming out. They're not recognising they were part of a system that let it happen."