For six years we have been campaigning against the scandal of abuse in children's homes. Today, at last, there is a hope they will be safe

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The Independent Online
After years of scandals,

inquiries and investigations into child abuse, hope at last emerges for the thousands of children trappedin children's homes

without protection. Today, the Government will be urged to re-think its whole residential child care policy.

"We need vigorous rehabilitation of residential care, clear and consistent rules and modernisation of foster care. The Government, local authority managers and staff must be continually vigilant against abuse," says Sir William Utting in a 200-page report which has taken nearly a year to produce.

The report, which calls for a range of new measures to protect children at risk, comes more than six years after reports in The Independent and Independent on Sunday uncovered the North Wales child abuse scandal.

Following a long campaign by the two newspapers, the last Tory government set up a judicial tribunal of inquiry into abuse at the North Wales homes in the 1980s and the Utting inquiry into failings in the national system of residential care. The report to be published today by Sir William, a former head of social services inspections in England and Wales, contains 20 major recommendations which are expected to set new standards in childcare.

It presents a picture of a care system where runaway children were often returned to their abusers, where young people who alleged abuse were not believed, and where youngsters still face bullying and intimidation.

Children are moved around too often because there are insufficient homes for them, and young people are still at risk from abuse. Some children's homes are still not regulated, some youngsters receive poor or no education, and homes are plagued by chronic staff shortages,

Sir William's report:

Urges the Government to legislate to regulate private foster care following the boom in these agencies over the past five years. There has been concern that these agencies should be subject to regulation which would involve detailed vetting;

Calls for children's homes with fewer than four residents, which currently escape regulation under the Children Act, to be brought into line with larger homes. There are thought to be about 140 of these type of homes. Sir William says children in these homes may be at risk and that they should be regulated;

Urges the Department of Health and the Welsh Office to set up a specialist group to develop a childcare strategy for residential care;

Urges local authorities to secure more residential and foster care facilities. It says that too many children's homes have been closed leaving social services departments with too little choice when placing young people.

The report says residential homes are an important option for children in care but that the numbers have shrunk to stage where there is not enough choice. It says that the lack of choice leads to inappropriate placements, not suitable for the children concerned. As a consequence, children are moved too often, that they are not happy where they are placed, and in some homes vulnerable children are mixed with "fearsome" children, exposing them to bullying and intimidation.

The inquiry was set up at the same time as the North Wales tribunal into abuse at homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd, and the brief was to look at the current safeguards to see if they are the most effective possible to protect children from abuse, and if those safeguards are being enforced.

The report says that disabled children and those with behavioural problems are the most at risk because they are less likely to be believed when they make allegations. Sir William adds: "One of the worst features of past scandals is that children who ran way were continually returned to the abusers care."

His report will be followed next year by the finding of Sir Ronald Waterhouse's judicial tribunal which has been investigating abuse at homes in North Wales. It too is likely to make recommendations about the future of residential care.

In recent years residential care, once the main provision for children, has been in decline. A series of inquiries and police prosecutions involving abuse in the Seventies and Eighties have added to the poor image of residential care and hastened its demise.

But there is an emerging view that properly supervised residential care, possibly with a national inspectorate overseeing standards and behaviour, might be the best form of provision for vulnerable children. Smaller homes, with more highly trained staff and part of a national strategy, with individual specialist homes, might, some believe, be the answer.