Welsh children's homes in abuse shame

Tuesday 15 February 2000 01:00

The North Wales children's homes' inquiry exposed a scandal which for 20 years allowed some of society's most vulnerable youngsters to be sexually, physically and emotionally abused by the very people supposed to protect them.

The North Wales children's homes' inquiry exposed a scandal which for 20 years allowed some of society's most vulnerable youngsters to be sexually, physically and emotionally abused by the very people supposed to protect them.

Up to 650 children in 40 homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd were abused by teachers, carers and even the heads and owners of the institutions, the inquiry heard.

In harrowing evidence, a seemingly never-ending stream of witnesses repeatedly broke down in tears as they recalled how they were raped, beaten and bullied by carers whom the world praised for apparently devoting their lives to the welfare of children.

Boys and girls as young as ten were raped and sexually assaulted by male and female staff and used as sex objects by carers; youngsters were beaten and forced to lick the shoes of their attackers or cut grass with nail scissors.

Children who complained had their home leave cancelled, suffered more beatings or were transferred to even harsher homes.

At least a dozen victims have committed suicide and countless others have led damaged lives, unable to cope in a world which totally betrayed them when they most needed help.

Now adults, many are still struggling to come to terms with the years of abuse they endured.

Deprived of a childhood, their adult lives too have been blighted by broken relationships, crime and mental illness.

Compensation claims are expected to run into millions and experts have warned there may be thousands more victims from children's homes throughout the UK.

But, as horrifying as the actual abuse uncovered by the inquiry, is the systematic cover-up of the situation by social workers, local authorities, police and even politicians.

Youngsters were trapped in what the inquiry's QC called "a twilight world of bewildering inconsistency" - abused by the people they were told would care for them, unable to make their voices heard beyond the walls of the homes.

Those whom they should have been able to confide in - or complain to - were often their attackers.

Even when concerns reached the outside world, complaints were dismissed, damning reports swept under the carpet, police investigations conducted half-heartedly, appeals to government ministers ignored.

Complicity and complacency allowed the abuse to continue for years after concerns were first raised.

Some abusers have now been jailed - others are likely to be named in the report today.

And those who allowed the abuse to happen - the council bosses, detectives and politicians - can also expect to face severe criticism.

The inquiry has taken three years, cost £13 million, heard evidence from 575 witnesses and amassed 43,000 pages of evidence.

When William Hague as Welsh Secretary ordered the tribunal of inquiry in 1996, it was the first time such powers had been used to investigate allegations of child abuse.

It quickly became the biggest inquiry into child abuse the country had ever seen, uncovering an appalling catalogue of crimes.

Worries about the standard of care in children's homes in north Wales were first raised in 1986 by social worker Alison Taylor.

She told her local councillor of her concerns about physical abuse and bullying of children at the Ty'r Felin council home in Gwynedd.

A meeting was set up between Mrs Taylor and the head of North Wales CID Detective Chief Superintendent Gwyn Owen.

But after he investigated her allegations no action was taken and Mrs Taylor was sacked from her job. She later won her case for unfair dismissal.

Undeterred, she spent the next four years writing to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Department of Health and the Welsh Office, repeating her allegations.

Letters were ignored or passed on. When, finally, an inspection of Gwynedd homes was ordered in 1988, Mrs Taylor was told the inspectors could "find nothing" to back up her claims.

But another 1988 report commissioned by Gledwyn Jones, then director of Clwyd Social Services, contained devastating criticisms of the country's children's homes and social services.

The report found there was no adequate complaints process, no overall planning and no proper control of the homes.

But Mr Jones suppressed the report and did not even tell councillors about it.

It emerged during the inquiry that four reports in the early Eighties had raised concerns about the homes and their management, none of which was published or acted on.

The council's policy of only acting on a child's complaint if it was backed up with independent witnesses also meant that few, if any, allegations were ever investigated.

In Gwynedd, the same situation prevailed - Lucille Hughes, director of the country's social services from 1983-1996, later admitted the council had failed children in its care.

Then in 1990, a 14-year-old boy at the Cartrefle children's home in Clwyd accused the then head, Stephen Norris, of sexually assaulting him in the showers.

Norris pleaded guilty to sexual offences against boys in the home and was jailed for three and a half years.

In 1991 North Wales Police were again asked to investigate cases of suspected abuse in children's homes.

This time hundreds of former residents were interviewed and the first evidence of systematic abuse was uncovered.

Before working at Cartrefle, Norris had been employed at the Bryn Estyn children's home, also in Clwyd.

Former residents told police they had been abused both by Norris and the deputy head of the home, Peter Howarth.

From there the police were led to the private Bryn Alyn home in the same area, where more cases of abuse were uncovered.

John Allen, the wealthy owner of Bryn Alyn, was named by residents as one of their attackers.

The police investigation led to Allen, Howarth and Norris being convicted of abusing a total of 22 boys and receiving cumulative jail sentences of 23 years.

A private inquiry was set up by Clwyd council in the wake of the prosecutions, but the damning 1996 report was not published because the council was told by its insurers that they could be sued for libel by those named as abusers, or for compensation by the abused.

But on June 17 of that year the then Welsh Secretary William Hague announced a full public inquiry, saying "the Government is determined that there should be no cover-up of events in the past".

Some victims have waited more than two decades for this day.

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