Cold light on the children's hell

Britain's biggest abuse inquiry begins: 650 cases, up to 80 staff involved at 30 homes
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A terrible story is stumbling into the daylight. For years, a countless number of children were systematically abused in children's homes across North Wales. At least 10 are now dead - most of them from suicide.

Yesterday the scale of their suffering emerged. As Gerard Elias QC said at the start of the tribunal investigating the scandal, if the allegations were accepted "they will compel the conclusion that children in care in Clwyd and Gwynedd during the period under review were abused physically or sexually on a scale which borders on wholesale exploitation".

Mr Elias, counsel to the tribunal, said a staggering 650 people who were in care in North Wales in a 25-year period from the mid-Seventies had made complaints of abuse to police. Around 180 will give evidence to Britain's biggest inquiry into alleged maltreatment of children in care.

"The content, volume and consistency of statements made by complainants to the tribunal appeared cogent and very impressive," Mr Elias told the tribunal, headed by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, a retired High Court judge.

The role of social services would be investigated, he said. "It seems an inescapable conclusion, if wholesale abuse occurred, that some of those in positions of responsibility within the social service departments must have been, at the best, careless as to the plight of many of the children in their care ... or at worst, negligent to the point of gross professional incompetence, or even guilty of deliberate 'eyes closing' to the state of affairs which existed in some of the homes they helped to administer."

Many of the allegations came to light as a result of articles in The Independent and Independent on Sunday over the last five years, starting with revelations about conditions at Bryn Estyn, near Wrexham. The tribunal was set up after we reported the refusal of the now defunct Clwyd County Council to publish an independent report into the abuse allegations.

As many as 80 people, and six police officers, alleged to have been involved in the abuse may also give evidence to the tribunal, which is expected to last 12 months and cost up to pounds 10m.

Mr Elias said the inquiry would be thorough and that no stone would be left unturned. Any allegations of organised abuse would be investigated, he said. Councils and their insurers were also criticised in his opening speech. "No civilised society may tolerate such abuse of its children, and no civilised society will consider those who find themselves in care to be in any different position to those who enjoy the benefits of living at home under the care and control of their parents," he said.

He added: "The abuse of a child is not only a most serious breach of trust by the adult concerned, it may well have had far-reaching and long- lasting consequences for the child victim which frequently outlive childhood. For too many, it seems, the consequences have been too hard to bear and suicide has seemed the only way out. At least 10 former children in care in North Wales who have alleged abuse in this period are now dead, most of these are known to have taken their own lives."

He said that the evidence will have significance throughout the country for the safety and well-being of children in care.

He said one of the questions that will be looked at was whether abuse was a series of unrelated occurrences or whether it bore the hallmarks of organisation or infiltration "by those with a determination to exploit vulnerable children".

He said the tribunal would also look at how complaints were made. "The overwhelming response of those seen by the tribunal's interview team has been that complaining was not a real option, it brought no relief but risked yet worse treatment."

Mr Elias, who continues his opening speech today, said that the role of the insurers of councils in North Wales would also be investigated.

"As the tide of complaints reached its crescendo in the Nineties, the loudest clamour seems to have come from the insurers of the local authorities who were anxious that abuse should be debated by members in private. Reports of inquiries were an 'encouragement to the bandwagon complaints', and with this approach, what might perhaps be called the hold-the-lid-on-at- all-costs approach, the Clwyd authority appears to have connived," Mr Elias said.

He said that from a police investigation in 1991, the tribunal team had identified more than 650 individual complainants.

Mr Elias said the tribunal, which is being held in Ewloe, Flintshire, had also surveyed a random sample of 600 children in care and found that some of them also complained of abuse. "This has been a valuable exercise because most of the individuals approached have not hitherto been interviewed by the police or made any independent claim for compensation. They have not been motivated apparently by money, publicity or any external encouragement to complain, as may be suggested by others."

The tribunal is inquiring into alleged abuse in more than 30 homes in North Wales from1974.

Sir Ronald ruled that complainants and alleged abusers cannot be identified during the hearings.