ABUSE CLAIMS: Former resident of home to test law: Derbyshire man seeks compensation for beatings received 15 years ago. Tim Kelsey reports

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The Independent Online
STEVE COLLIS has the word LOVE tattooed across his knuckles and a big heart on his shoulder with the words MUM and DAD entwined across it. These are his dreams.

In fact, he hated his mother and his father so much that he could not bear to live at home with them. He says they used to feed him and his five brothers and sisters on toast and water for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

Eventually he ran away and ended up in a Derbyshire children's home. He says the experience was devastating.

He is now one of more than 70 children and adults seeking compensation from local authorities for physical and sexual abuse allegedly suffered while in children's homes, while hundreds more are expected to begin proceedings soon.

Mr Collis, now 31, wants some recognition for what he says he suffered.

It was more than 15 years ago, but he believes that he has the right to compensation.

So do several others who attended his school. They, too, are seeking to take legal action against Derbyshire.

But they may fall foul of limitation provisions which appear only to allow them to make a claim within three years of the alleged incidence of abuse.

Mr Collis, like the others, first realised he might have the right to go to court when the issue was raised in a television programme after Frank Beck was convicted in 1991 of sexual abuse in Leicestershire homes.

Some solicitors are seeking to set a new precedent and invite a judge to clear up the uncertainty about a time-bar.

The argument is simple: where the effects of abuse continue to disable a person's life, they are entitled to financial assistance. If he is barred from bringing a civil action then Mr Collis proposes to raise funds to pay for private prosecutions of those accused of abuse.

Mr Collis says his experiences have left him frightened of going out of doors on his own. But he has otherwise managed to cope with the trauma. He is now a foster parent for Derbyshire social services.

He and his wife have so far looked after 50 children, and he also ran a helpline for a year for those who were in homes and wanted somebody with whom they could talk.

Many of the callers were very young children. 'I can remember a couple ringing me to complain of sexual abuse by staff and I sent their letters to Nottingham social services but I have heard nothing since,' he said. 'The abuse in our homes goes on.'

He says that his own nightmare started after he arrived at the children's home when he was 16. He entered the home, which takes children aged between 8 and 17, voluntarily. (The home is still in use).

He claims that his brutalisation lasted for 18 months. He says that on his second day some policemen came and took him into an office and slapped him around the face. He alleges that he was regularly beaten and punched by a senior member of staff.

On one occasion he claims that he was forced to go and pick leaves out of the snow in his underpants. The same staff member, he alleges, would unleash his dog on the terrified children while they were watching television.

The same man, he says, took him to his bedroom and wrapped him up with plastic tape, leaving room for him to breath through his nose. He was untied by another member of staff, who has offered to testify when his case comes to court. The man accused of abuse has recently been interviewed by the police and has told them he cannot remember any of the incidents. The police have forwarded a report to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Among those seeking compensation is a friend of Mr Collis's who says he was taken into the bathroom and had his head forced into a bowl of water, fracturing his nose. Mr Collis says he was standing near by and punched the care worker responsible, but that no action was taken against him because he threatened to report the incident to the police if it was. After he left the home, Mr Collis passed through a number of institutions, ending up, still unable to read and write, in a hostel in Leicester. Finally, his aunt took him in.

Derbyshire council has said it has worked with the police to investigate the allegations and is waiting for Mr Collis to open legal proceedings.

His solicitor, Simon Richardson, called last week for an urgent review of the law to allow abuse victims to seek compensation even many years after the event. 'It is ridiculous and deeply unjust,' he said.

There are a number of test cases proceeding, including that of Mychaela Cook, a former prostitute, who is claiming against the London Borough of Camden for abuse in its homes during the Eighties on the basis that she is suffering from psychiatric illness as a result. The Legal Aid Board has agreed to fund the case and a writ was issued last April.

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 13

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