Lack of checks on homes staff 'puts children at risk'

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CHILDREN in residential care remain vulnerable to abuse and neglect by unsuitable staff despite a string of children's home scandals over the past decade, social services directors were told yesterday.

A survey of more than 1,000 children's homes in the public, private and voluntary sectors found that employers often failed to check whether job candidates had criminal convictions, and used 'sloppy' recruitment procedures. Four out of 10 heads of homes and eight out of 10 care staff had no relevant qualifications.

The study, carried out by the consultants Price Waterhouse for the government-appointed Committee of Inquiry on the Management of Residential Children's Homes, was presented to the annual conference of social services directors on the Isle of Wight.

Norman Warner, the committee chairman, told the conference: 'It comes close to negligence to appoint staff without conducting proper inquiries of previous employers of line managers, or without conducting all approved checks.'

He added: 'This unsatisfactory situation has made it easier for a small group of people with perverted and paedophile tendencies to indulge their proclivities in children's homes.'

The committee, set up in the wake of the Frank Beck child sex abuse case last year, is expected to demand a radical overhaul of the recruitment and training of staff in children's homes in its report to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, next month.

Mr Warner said that one in 10 private and voluntary homes made no police checks for criminal convictions. Moreover, there was little evidence of systematic attempts to establish how well candidates dealt with children. 'The selection and appointment arrangements in many places are sloppy and are not designed to produce safe appointments,' he said.

Interview procedures were shown to be outdated. Research showed their chances of producing satisfactory staff were about 14 per cent - worse odds than tossing a coin.

All too often supervision consisted of a chat in the corridor and there was unsatisfactory support and care of staff, he said.

About two-thirds of the 11,500 children in residential care suffered emotional or behavioural problems, and one-third had suffered sexual abuse. Yet most were being looked after by unqualified, and sometimes untrained, staff.

The committee is likely to recommend formal targets for raising the level of qualifications and training. In particular, it wants all residential child care staff to have personal development contracts to commit employers and employees to agreed training programmes.

The committee will press ministers to improve specialist support services to local authority children's homes. Only 40 per cent currently have access to psychologists and psychiatrists.

'It is clear that in some parts of the country the NHS has largely abandoned providing specialist support to children's homes and local authority staff have given up asking for help,' said Mr Warner.