Children's home staff face tougher vetting

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HEALTH ministers yesterday ordered immediate action from local authorities to improve seriously deficient recruitment methods for staff in children's homes after sexual abuse scandals.

Applicants' sexual interests, relationships and characters should be discussed in depth at preliminary interviews while full employment histories should be taken and criminal record checks made before appointment, the Warner inquiry into children's homes staffing recommended.

The inquiry was set up last year after Frank Beck was given five life sentences for sexually abusing children in four Leicestershire children's homes.

But while ordering councils to act, ministers moved only to consult on a string of recommendations affecting central government - including the appointment of a Development Action Group, with a three-year life and annual public reports, to be both a watchdog and an agent for change.

Tim Yeo, Parliamentary Secretary at the Department of Health, said he accepted the report's 83 recommendations in principle and declared the report 'will not be allowed to gather dust'. Local authorities should, however, be given an opportunity to comment on how best to implement the report's recommendations, he said.

Noting that there have been eight inquiries affecting children's homes since 1985, the Warner team said: 'We are concerned there have been so many inquiries whose findings have gone largely unheeded by the service as a whole.'

Warner suggests the homes are in crisis, the children in them becoming older and more disturbed and that an estimated one third of them are victims of sexual abuse. Staff training and development is described as 'dire', with 80 per cent of care staff and 40 per cent of home heads unqualified.

Rather than the orphans and truants of a bygone era, some homes now house 'many violent, abused, abusing and self-mutilating children'. An action group would be the 'engine for change' that the homes need.

Labour and local authority associations said more money would be needed to fund the improved recruitment, supervision and work-based training that the inquiry recommends. But Norman Warner, the former Kent social services director who chaired the inquiry, said that councils could achieve more by making children's homes a higher priority. 'The children in residence did not ask to be there,' he said.

The report says implementation of its recommendations 'will deter a small group of paedophiles who seem to have sought employment in children's homes to gain access to vunerable children'.

But society 'will need to be alert to the danger' that determined paedophiles could turn to education and youth work as it becomes more difficult for them to secure children's homes jobs.

Choosing with Care; HMSO; pounds 13.25.

Rigorous recruitment, page 2

Sandra Barwick, page 19