North Wales care home abuse: 'It was like a world within a world. There was no escape'

The number of claims is shocking, but it's the detail that is truly horrifying. Roger Dobson explains what we do and don't know about the scandal

The 'victims'

Previous inquiries and reports have suggested that several hundred children may be been abused, sexually or otherwise, in care homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd between 1974 and 1996. Until yesterday, however, fewer than 70 complainants had been identified by name. Yesterday's report included allegations from 76 "new" complainants.

The abuse

Operation Pallial has identified 140 allegations relating to 18 care homes, over the period from 1963 to 1992. Not all of the abuse will have been sexual; some will have been "merely" violent. In the nightmare world of homes like Bryn Estyn, abuse of all kinds – mental, physical and sexual – merged into a pervasive regime of terror.

The latest allegations echo those that have been made in the past by boys and young men who passed through the doors of this former approved school in Wrexham. According to one inquiry's report, Bryn Estyn was a dumping ground for "difficult" young men in care, where bullying and violence were commonplace. The home was a place of locked doors, communal showers and no privacy, cut off from the outside world. The man who effectively ran it, Peter Howarth, left only to play golf.

Allegations of widespread violence were reported by the Jillings inquiry. It was claimed that, in some cases, the bullying was encouraged by care workers. There are reports of boys being punched, slapped and thrown. Jillings also reported on a "flat list" operated by Howarth, who was later jailed for a number of offences. "He was able to invite groups of up to 14 boys to his flat, clad only in pyjamas, and forbidden to wear underclothing. Boys complained of being touched by Howarth on the upper leg, or on the penis. His favourites were seriously sexually abused [buggered] by him and required to have oral sex. More than one boy described the sexual acts initiated by Howarth as his first sexual experience."

Some former care children told the Jillings inquiry of their experiences at Bryn Estyn and of life in care generally. "Bryn Estyn was the Colditz of residential. If you never rocked the boat, you were left alone," said one.

"If you saw a couple of kids fighting, you'd slap them," said another. "The staff would nod – you'd dealt with it: nice one." Another had this to say about care in north Wales in general. "The worst thing was the world within a world. There was no escape. You had to choose a way to survive. It was literally surviving."

The 'abusers'

New allegations made to Operation Pallial identify 84 alleged perpetrators of abuse. Of these, 16 were named by more than one accuser and 10 may now be dead. The alleged abusers have not been named, and thus it is not possible to say whether they are "new" or whether they have already been named in previous inquiries. Between 1978 and 1995, at least nine people were convicted of offences against young people relating to care homes in North Wales. The most prominent were Frederick Rutter, who had worked at a number of homes including Bryn Estyn and was jailed for 12 years in 1991 for rape and assault; Howarth, who was sentenced in 1994 to seven years in jail for sexual offences against seven boys in care; and John Allen, owner of the private Bryn Alyn Home, who was jailed in 1995 for six years for offences against residents. Five of the care workers who have been convicted of these offences had worked at some time at Bryn Estyn.

 

The homes

The allegations described in the Pallial report relate to 18 different care homes. The report does not say which ones. However, there are at least six centres in North Wales which have already been the object of allegations of abuse. The Waterhouse inquiry found that about 140 former residents of Bryn Estyn between 1974 and 1984 had made allegations of physical and/or sexual abuse, of whom 48 gave evidence to the inquiry. Other implicated homes include Little Acton Assessment Centre; Bersham Hall, where 19 people had complained prior to 1980; Chevet Hay; Cartrefle, where there were 24 complainants of abuse by Stephen Norris; and the privately owned Bryn Alyn.

The investigations

Allegations of abuse of children in care in North Wales have been investigated by one judicial inquiry, two major police inquires, one independent inquiry, and at least 10 internal inquires involving seven specific homes.

The first such inquiry, into allegations of physical abuse at Bryn Estyn, was held in 1971. In 1992, following a major inquiry led by Detective Superintendent Peter Ackerley, 17 people were arrested, and four former social service staff, including Norris and Howarth, were charged with sexual and physical offences. In 1997, the then Welsh Secretary, William Hague, set up the Waterhouse judicial inquiry into alleged child abuse in care in north Wales. It sat for more than 200 days, taking evidence from 650 witnesses. Its report, Lost In Care, published in 2000, concluded that abuse had taken place on a significant scale. It made more than 70 recommendations. None the less, a BBC Panorama programme last year aired claims that Waterhouse had not uncovered the full extent of the abuse. Operation Pallial was set up as a result. The 76 new allegations in its first report brings the recorded total to 140. North Wales Police have asked the National Crime Agency to continue with the investigation.

The unanswered questions

Two big questions remain unresolved: was there a paedophile ring orchestrating the abuse and infiltrating care homes? And was this institutional abuse unique to North Wales?

"To the extent that we have indicated, we accept that there was an active paedophile ring operating in the Chester and Wrexham areas for much of the period under review," says the Waterhouse report. But, it adds: "The evidence does not establish, however, that there was a conspiracy to recruit paedophiles to children's residential establishments or to infiltrate them in some other way. Although there have been one or two allegations that individual members of residential staff arranged for a child to be provided to an outsider for sexual purposes, the evidence in support of these allegations has been far from satisfactory and we cannot be sure that they are true."

Jillings drew attention to the "striking fact" that "five men who shared in common their employment as residential care workers were convicted of serious offences involving at least 24 young people." An alternative explanation that has been advanced is that the poor wages and recruitment difficulties, and the closed nature of many of the institutions with children who and little outside contact, led to a climate in which abusers could prosper.

It has also been suggested that North Wales was not unique. For example, before Stephen Norris moved to Bryn Estyn, he worked at Greystone Heath, an approved school in Liverpool. Three other workers from that school were convicted of sexual offences. According to the unpublished Jillings report, there was concern in other areas and other inquires. "We have been told of extensive police inquires . . . being undertaken in five local authority areas in England," it says. "Inquires of the Department of Health revealed that the number of files relating to inquires into abuse in residential establishments escalated from 80 to 400 over a very few years. It is now described as a significant problem."

That was written (but not published) in 1994. Nearly two decades later, it is hard to be confident that the problem has been fully resolved.

“It was a case of being out of sight and out of mind”

A victim’s story

Keith Gregory is finally receiving counselling for the time he spent at Bryn Estyn.

Mr Gregory, now 54, spent three years in the now-closed home where he says he was repeatedly abused.

He has named four people in his allegations of abuse at the home, and is now urging more people who spent time in the home to come forward.

“Life there was very grim in those days,” says Mr Gregory, now a Wrexham councillor, whose brother, Tony, aged 51, also claims that he was abused during his time in the care system in the early 1970s.

“It was a case of being out of sight and out of mind.

 “If you think of the thousands of people who passed through the care system then, the number of who were abused must be very big.

“I know there are people out there who have not yet come forward,” he added.

“By doing so they will be able to get help. Thanks to this new inquiry, I am finally getting the counselling that I should have been offered years ago.’’

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