Care worker tells of children 'frozen with fear'

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The Independent Online

As police released pictures of a secret underground "punishment room" in the cellars of the Jersey children's home where scores of people allege they were abused, a former worker has told how she saw young residents "absolutely ice cold and frozen with fear".

Christine Bowker, who was a volunteer worker at the Haut de la Garenne care home in the early 1970s, said she eventually left because of the conduct of some members of staff but was met by a "wall of silence" when she voiced her concerns.

"They had no civil contact with me whatsoever, and watched me very carefully with the children. And if the children relaxed at all, or responded to my affection, they glared at the children and they glared at me, then the children just went back into their shells," she said.

Forensic experts have been excavating a bricked-up cellar beneath Haut de la Garenne since tip-offs from victims led to the discovery of a child's skull on Saturday last week, but work paused yesterday so the search teams, who have been working 13-hour days, could rest.

A second room has been found but has yet to be broken into. Detectives suspect there may be four in all.

Ms Bowker, speaking to BBC News 24, said she had never seen any signs of the alleged abuse but described some of the staff as "very rigid and very controlled".

"I didn't say anything to the staff because I knew there was something going on which I couldn't quite put my finger on," she said. "When I left ... and I left in distress and abuse I received from some of the staff ... I couldn't get anybody to listen to the problem. Nobody would listen. There was just a wall of silence.

"I mentioned it to some of the people in Jersey. Everybody covered everything – their attitude was really nice people managed by the state. We get decent people to run things."

Excavation work would resume today, said Jersey police. Police have already made "significant finds" in the first secret cellar of a sunken bath and shackles, and have also found an opening in the ground floor above the cellar, which victims described as a trap door to the room.

"We know there is another chamber next to the one we're working in. We suspect there might be two more running off it," said deputy police chief Lenny Harper, leading the investigation. "We are progressing the first room, carrying out a detailed forensic examination of the cellar."

Former residents of the home, which catered for orphans and youngsters with behavioural problems, allege they were kept in solitary confinement, raped and beaten in the rooms, and say they were left in a bath of cold water before being abused. They claim that not only did staff regularly sexually assault boys and girls, but that they were also attacked by residents.

The allegations cover several institutions on Jersey and span 40 years. Most date from the 1970s and 1980s.

The police inquiry into Haut de la Garenne, which closed as a children's home in 1986, began in November 2006 after a number of paedophiles within Jersey Sea Cadets were convicted. Police noticed that many of the victims had links to the home, and made covert investigations for 12 months before going public last year.

Officers have 40 suspects and have spoken to more than 200 alleged victims and witnesses, 70 of whom have come forward since the skull was found under the floor beneath a stairwell. Police said some witnesses had said they were treated well, and that the inquiry was not treating all workers at the home as suspects.

The scale of the inquiry has led Jersey police to request help from the mainland in the form of 12 extra detectives. The examination by an archaeologist and an anthropologist of material from the first cellar would take three or four weeks, police said.