15 forces hunt child abusers

Police across Britain investigate paedophile gangs
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A third of Britain's police forces are now investigating allegations of abuse in children's homes, or have done so recently, the Independent on Sunday has learned.

Detectives in 15 forces across the country, from Edinburgh to Cambridge, have been tracing thousands of former children's home residents after allegations of physical and sexual abuse. In some cases, evidence of abuse unearthed in one police area involves allegations and suspicions of abuse in another force, which have been passed on.

Because the investigations are not being officially co-ordinated on a national basis, their remarkable scale and extent have hitherto received no publicity. But they are increasing fears among police, social workers and MPs involved that for decades Britain's children home network in its entirety was a magnet for paedophiles.

The police forces involved are North Wales, South Wales, Cheshire, Merseyside, Lothian and Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire, Staffordshire, Durham, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Midlands, Greater Manchester and the Metropolitan Police in London.

The revelation that these investigations are now so widespread will spark pressure for a much wider public inquiry than Mr Justice Waterhouse's judicial tribunal into child abuse in homes in Clwyd and other parts of North Wales, due to start in January and expected to last a year.

This week parents of children abused in Cheshire, where one of the biggest investigations is taking place, will meet MPs at the House of Commons and urge them to back their calls for a Royal Commission to look into the problem nationally.

Senior detectives involved in the investigations also want a national pooling of information to track the activities of abusive care workers who appear to have moved regularly between homes leaving a trail of allegations and victims in their wake.

The scale of abuse in children's homes in the Seventies and Eighties has only emerged in recent years, largely because victims did not think that they would be believed.

"We are finding that victims are now recognising that things had gone wrong and that people will now listen to them," said Detective Superintendent John Robbins who heads another big investigation, in Merseyside. "There was a perception that years ago people would not listen to these sorts of complaints. Now people are listening."

Rhodri Morgan, Labour's spokesman on social services and health in Wales, which has seen two of the biggest investigations, said: "It is clear that the Waterhouse inquiry would be the ideal vehicle if, at the end, it was able to consider how you could in future prevent what has obviously been going on in the past. If not, there must be an inquiry that looks at this whole situation.

"Paedophiles seem to have had a remarkable ability to get references, training places and jobs all over the country, and then be protected for a long period from investigation, dismissal and police activity.

"It seems that any paedophile who acts suspiciously may well be in another institution very quickly before they are caught up with. It should now be obvious that there was a substantial infiltration of children's homes in this country by these people."

This week the Government is expected to set out plans for a register of convicted child sex abusers. A Bill giving details of a crackdown on child abusers is expected to be published before the Christmas recess.

A hint at the contents of the Bill are contained in a letter from Home Office Minister David Maclean to Baroness Josie Farrington, a leading child care campaigner.

"Those convicted of qualifying offences, essentially sexual offences against children, will be required to inform the police of any change in their address," Mr Maclean says. "This will enable the police to maintain on the national criminal records an up-to-date register of the whereabouts of these offenders."