Can you really trust Akela?: The Warner report may protect children in homes, but not those in private schools and scout troops, says Sandra Barwick

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The Independent Online
A paedophile does not, as a general rule, attend interviews wearing a woolly hat and a leering expression. This ought to be a superfluous observation, but the evidence of the Warner inquiry into the staffing of children's homes, published yesterday, suggests otherwise.

Ten per cent of heads of homes and one-third of care workers, it says, take up posts before their references have been confirmed, and some before police have checked whether their names tally with those of known sex offenders. Some of those recruiting staff for children's homes, it is clear, think that they will know a paedophile when they see one.

The past, of course - the recent past - proves that not only are paedophiles not spotted by their expressions at interview, but also that they are not noticed during years in office carrying out serious assaults on the children in their care. Frank Beck, who was sentenced to five life terms in November 1991 for the physical and sexual abuse of children in his care in Leicestershire council homes over 13 years, is an example.

Even those who are given strong clues to their employees' natures sometimes seem to turn a blind eye. As long ago as 1985, another official inquiry, the Leeways report, looked at the case of an officer in charge of a children's home who was taking indecent photographs of young children. For six years his superiors had been aware that his behaviour was unacceptable and had sexual implications, but failed to act.

Has the situation changed? It seems not: only this month it was revealed that Lambeth council had failed to dismiss a man in charge of a children's home with a past conviction for indecently assaulting a 13-year-old boy, because 'the nature of his offence had not led the council to believe he was a danger to children'.

'At almost every point,' the Leeways report concluded, 'at which collectively or individually the people involved had to choose between making the welfare of the child the first consideration, and some conflicting loyalty or priority, they chose the latter.' That sentence should be engraved on the tombstone of the present system for the recruitment and management of staff in children's homes.

Those who abuse children can appear respectable, charming, amusing and socially gifted. According to Nicholas Groth, an American clinical psychologist who has worked for 26 years with abusers, there is no common profile of the child abuser, any more than there is of the alcoholic. He, or she - abuse of children is not confined to men - cannot be identified by clothes or accent. Anyone interviewing an adult who will have power over children cannot hope to rely on instinct.

A check in police records, and a thorough check to make sure staff members and appointees are not using false names will not weed out all abusers, but is the minimum protection that children should expect. That goes for all those who employ staff with control over children, not only those in children's homes, to which the Warner inquiry was limited. If this, the most crucial area of child vulnerability, has so many gaps and loopholes, what reliance can be placed an checks elsewhere?

Many organisations dealing with abused children say their abusers seek out youth organisations, nursery schools - any job that will allow them prolonged and unsupervised contact. Yet at present only local authorities and a limited number of voluntary groups under the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisation's pilot scheme can check the criminal records of their employees. Agencies providing workers for children's homes cannot carry out checks. The Scout Association says it has no way of finding out whether the keen young man who has just volunteered to take over a Scout group is fresh out of prison after a five- year sentence for raping a 15-year-old.

Then there are boarding schools, crammed with children over whom teachers have wide influence. The Department of Health holds List 99, a compilation of those who have been convicted of sexual and other offences while teaching.

But if Warner has found that only half of local authorities tell other potential employers about staff leaving under a cloud, how many in the scandal-shy private sector are covering up in the old-school style described so well by Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall? 'I expect you'll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That's what most of the gentlemen does, Sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour.'

The civil liberties at risk in these cases are not those of scrutinised adults but of children. They deserve protection that the law does not yet provide. The Warner report is only a small step along the road.