Britain's most vulnerable and disturbed children continue to be exposed to sexual and physical abuse in residential care homes, despite a series of damning inquiries over the last decade.
The Government has consistently failed to act on recommendations from the high-level inquiries set up to investigate the scandals. Instead, ministers have allowed a system to continue which still allows paedophiles and abusers to:
t Take up jobs in homes without being fully vetted.
t Escape prosecution after their activities have been discovered.
t Move on to other jobs without their activities being reported.
t Undermine the word of the children who report them.
t Exploit the lack of spot checks and inspections on homes and the widespread reluctance to believe children.
t Exploit the absence of a central regulatory body and code of conduct.
Many child victims of abuse bear scars which can last a lifetime. Some are not believed when they first complain, others still feel lasting shame and inadequacy and say that they are haunted by the memory of their abusers, who were often the very people they had most trusted. Many take their own lives.
The problems in children's homes have been highlighted this month by the attempt to suppress the publication of a report into abuse in children's homes in Clwyd, North Wales, where at least 100 children may have suffered sexual abuse in the Seventies and Eighties. It was feared that if the report was published it would provide the victims with evidence to sue the council.
At least 12 former residents of the Clwyd homes have died in circumstances related to their experiences. More than 50 staff have been disciplined, but ministers have done nothing to change the law to prevent the same thing happening today.
Allan Levy QC, one of Britain's most distinguished authorities on child abuse, said yesterday: "At first there was so much interest in tackling this issue, but it's gone down and down, and now there is a lot of disillusionment. What the Wales experience shows really is that the abusers are still winning."
Mr Levy co-wrote the report into the physical and emotional abuse of more than 150 children in Staffordshire between 1983 and 1989. Children as young as nine were isolated in a bare room, wearing only their night clothes, for up to 84 days at a time in a policy known as "pin-down". Some in desperation slashed their wrists and took overdoses.
He added: "What has come to light about the abuse in residential care homes, and what horrifies me is that there is no doubt that there are groups of abusers working in these places, and the level of involvement may go from workers right through to police officers."
There are at present an estimated 8,000 children in residential care in England and Wales, costing approximately up to pounds 1,500 a week for each child. Some are in council-run homes, others are in private homes, but abuses have been revealed in both sectors.
Children in a pounds 1,000-a-week private residential home run by a grocer in Kent were subjected to a regime of vicious beatings, and food and sleep deprivation. The owner's son, a former vacuum-cleaner salesman, would throw children off the furniture.
In Leicestershire Frank Beck, who ran local homes, abused more than 100 children between 1973 and 1986. He exercised his infamous "regression therapy" in which he forced children to wear nappies and was convicted of rape and buggery.
There was also widespread abuse in Islington, north London, where more than 60 children in residential care were thought to have been involved with a paedophile ring involving council staff and abusers from outside.
A number of prominent compensation cases have highlighted the plight of children in care. Two women under Beck's control were awarded pounds 225,000 earlier this month, and 140 people who had been victims of the pin-down policy in Staffordshire received compensation totalling pounds 2m.
But the loopholes that made them vulnerable to abuse in the first place remain. Norman Warner, who led a government inquiry into abuse in 1992 following pin-down, said yesterday that ministers had failed to act on his call for an independent team to look at how the system should be improved.
Mr Warner said: "We wanted it to be a public watchdog that would ensure change took place. We wanted champions of change, and instead we got a support group without much money which was not allowed to speak out publicly and nothing happened."
Childcare experts and social service directors now believe that urgent action is needed on four fronts to prevent the abuse of children:
t A "general social services council" should be established to act as a professional and disciplinary body for social and care workers - similar to the arrangements for doctors, nurses and lawyers.
t There should be improved inspection and registration of children's homes.
t A central index of individuals convicted of offences against children should be established.
t A programme of improved training should be set up for care workers.
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