Bricked-up cellar may yield truth of child abuse scandal

A bricked-up cellar at a former care home in Jersey is being examined by forensic experts after a child's remains were found at the weekend, following claims of abuse at the premises stretching back five decades. Detectives say the search could last up to two weeks after sniffer dogs gave positive "indications" at six other locations within the building.

Amid speculation that more bodies may be found at the property, the island's deputy chief of police, Lenny Harper, told the Jersey Evening Post: "We always hoped it would not end like this but, from the information we were getting, it was always a possibility. We are very interested in the cellar because we do have allegations that offences were committed in a cellar and we think we know where that cellar is."

There were accusations of a cover-up yesterday after it emerged that several bones were found in 2003 by builders renovating the former children's home, but the remains were written off as being animal bones and the case was closed.

Haut de la Garenne, built in 1867, is known as the setting for the BBC detective series Bergerac. In the 19th century, it originally served as an industrial school for "young people of the lower classes of society and neglected children", before becoming a care home by 1900. It was an orphanage and correctional facility until its closure in 1986. In 2004, the house was turned into a 100-room youth hostel after a £2.25m refurbishment. The majority of the alleged assaults are believed to have taken place between the 1960s and 1980s.

Police say they have been contacted by 150 people claiming to be victims of abuse or witnesses to it at the centre. The NSPCC said it had received 63 calls from people claiming they were abused in Jersey care homes, 27 of whom have been referred to detectives. Detectives made their first gruesome discovery on Saturday afternoon, when a child's remains, believed to be a skull, were found at the youth hostel in St Martin on the north-western tip of the Channel island.

Mr Harper said the inquiry would look into why reported cases went unanswered. "Part of the inquiry will be the fact that a lot of victims tried to report their assaults but ... they were not dealt with as they should be," he said. "We are looking at allegations that a number of agencies didn't deal with things as perhaps they should."

As a result of the recent publicity, he added, several people had reported being abused in care on Jersey between the ages of eight and 10, adding to the police tally of 140 possible victims.

Stuart Syvret, Jersey's former Health minister, who claims he was sacked for revealing the extent of child abuse on the island, has accused Jersey's government of a cover-up, although Mr Harper said he had seen no evidence of that. Speaking on yesterday's Radio 4 Today programme, Mr Syvret alleged that a "culture" of cover-ups went "as far as the very top of Jersey's society".

Comments picked up after a radio interview between the island's chief minister, Frank Walker, and Mr Syvret highlighted the growing tension on the island. After the end of the interview in their Jersey studios Mr Syvret turned on his former political colleague and exclaimed: "We're talking about children here." Mr Walker responded: "You're trying to shaft Jersey internationally."

A free helpline set up by the NSPCC at the request of police has received 63 calls from adults reporting allegations of physical, sexual and emotional abuse dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. Police said that records of children at Haut de la Garenne were "patchy". It is understood that those who died in care may have been reported as runaways.

Although officers have not confirmed where in the hostel they are digging, the cellar at the back of the building – which was covered with a white tarpaulin tent yesterday – is believed to be the main focus of the investigation. Three witnesses have told police that child abuse took place in the cellar many times during the 1960s and 1970s.

The investigation began in November 2006 but detectives kept their inquiries secret for more than a year in order not to alert those suspected of carrying out the attacks.

One Scottish resident, who has lived on the island for eight years, said: "There have been rumours of child abuse for years ... But you don't expect it to happen on a wee little picturesque island like here."

History of Haut de la Garenne

* 1867: Haut de la Garenne first built.

* 1900: Renamed the Jersey Home for Boys, the centre houses youngsters with special needs, serving as a school and orphanage.

*1986: Home is closed.

*2004: Reopens after a £2.25m refurbishment as Jersey's first youth hostel.

* 11 September 2007: Stuart Syvret sacked as a health minister after criticising ministers and civil servants over childcare.

* 22 November 2007: As reports emerge of systematic abuse at the home, police investigate the treatment of boys and girls aged between 11 and 15 since the 1960s, as well as links with the Jersey Sea Cadets.

* 30 January 2008: Charges brought against a man linked to the home for indecently assaulting three girls under 16.

* 19 February 2008: A full-scale police excavation begins at the home.

* 23 February 2008: A sniffer dog discovers human remains and shows "indications" at six other sites at the home. The remains are sent for tests.