The day that trust moved out

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The Independent Online
UNDER the hot sunshine on the Headland, workmen this week were battering metal sheets over the windows of the council flat where little Rosie Palmer's body was found.

Fury and fear are running high on this council estate in Hartlepool which lies on a spur of land jutting into the North Sea, with the silhouettes of cranes in the docks on one side.

'The people here were that angry and frightened they were all ready for going down and torching that house at first,' said Deborah Willingham, sitting on her doorstep with her friend while their children played beneath their watchful eyes. 'To be honest, I'm terrified.'

A general fear of the bogeyman child-snatcher has seized the Headland to an even greater extent than the rest of the country, gripped by the disappearance of Abbie Humphries from a Nottingham hospital.

That terror has not been assuaged by the fact that a man is now in custody. All strangers are now suspect - little is known of the man's past, and estimates of how long he had been on the estate vary from six months to two years - and the community is wary of single men who have recently been housed there. They want to know whether procedures exist to prevent people who could have a criminal record, particularly of crimes against children, from being housed in areas where large numbers of children live. But their questions are not yielding satisfactory answers.

The numbers of alleged criminals living on the estate seem to rise almost each time the subject is discussed. Some say there are four, others that there are seven, others again that there is a rapist on the corner - who knows?

'You say to your kids, 'don't talk to strangers', but how can you say, 'don't talk to neighbours'?' asked Carol Butterfield, sitting with Deborah on the doorstep.

What more can be done to safeguard children, they ask each other - just as maternity units across Britain are wondering what further safeguards, even against women in nurses' uniform, they can put in place.

Residents at a stormy meeting demanded to know from local council officers what policies exist to put their minds at ease. In the climate of tension, parents have discovered that although it is possible to check on the criminal backgrounds of men and women applying for jobs that bring them into contact with children, there is no straightforward system to prevent those with a sexual criminal history from being rehoused in an area full of small children playing on the streets.

'We didn't get any answers,' said Jackie Kenny, a mother of three.

'Every time we asked what safeguards there were, they told us it wasn't their department,' said Deborah Willingham.

The people of the Headland believe that clear government guidelines are necessary if they are ever to be able to quash their fears about alleged sex offenders presently living in their midst. Some officials privately agree that this may be a useful subject for public discussion, but accept it is one that will inevitably raise the question of civil liberties.

The Headland is that rare thing, a genuine community, in some ways an old-fashioned place. For years fishermen and dockers have lived here and enjoyed a sense of freedom that came from security and the knowledge of deep roots.

Older women still chat by their garden walls in their pinnies, and hordes of blond children run in and out of the homes of friends and relatives. This openness explains why Rosie's mother delayed for five hours while friends' houses were checked before the police were called. Until her disappearance, all the children played in fine weather on the streets and by the sea, yards from the houses.

These traditional playgrounds are now cut off. The thought of the long summer holiday ahead fills the mothers of the Headland with dread. It is now a ghost town, its streets empty, its doors closed, while inside the houses is a desperate need for reassurance that the law of the land reflects the fears of its citizens.

'There should be screening of people coming into council houses,' said Kenneth Officer, an unemployed clerk, as he watched his daughter play. 'I'm not talking about Rosie's death - but there's all sorts of rumours about who's living on this estate.'

A lack of confidence in authorities' rules leads in these circumstances to a dangerous climate. The rumours sweeping the Headland may be quite untrue, but they are gaining in intensity.

'People have said 'get them out, or we'll do it',' said one woman. 'At the meeting, that's what people were saying. This is a place where people care, but it's also the kind of place where that could happen.'

(Photograph omitted)