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"Child Killing" in Jersey according to the Irish Times (and Mick Waters)

Jersey's Dark Secret

Irish Times, 1st March, 2008 by CARL O'BRIEN at Haut de la Garenne

Haut de la Garenne youth hostel near St Martin in Jersey.

Haut de la Garenne youth hostel near St Martin in Jersey.
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Jersey, a closed society, has always had its secrets - but none more disturbing than the tales of abuse at a former children's home that came to light this week.

It's a sad, grey morning in Gorey, on the east coast of Jersey, as rain spits down on the empty beaches. The tearooms, which advertise real Jersey ice-cream, have few customers to serve, while an occasional visitor appears in the souvenir shop with its porcelain Jersey cows and locally-grown lavender.

A thick mist obscures most of the granite face of Mont Orgueil - or "Mount Pride" - on the cliff-top overhead, an imposing 13th-century castle that in summer is a tourist magnet.

"This place only comes to life when we have visitors," says one cafe-owner located along the pier. "Not much happens here at this time of year. When the sun's shining and the tourists are here, it's bursting. But on a day like this, it can be pretty grim."

But there is another, much more disturbing reason for the overwhelming sense of gloom. Just a few miles over the cliff-top, past large houses with gravel driveways and behind rows of fields being harvested for new potatoes, lies the Victorian building of Haut de la Garenne.

The 100-room facility opened in 1867 as an industrial school for "young people of the lower classes of society and neglected children", before becoming a care home in 1900.

It closed in the mid-1980s - when it became the setting for the police station in the BBC detective series Bergerac - and more recently was turned into a youth hostel.

But this former children's home is the setting for what authorities believe could be one of Britain's worst child abuse scandals.

Police involved in excavating the building have already found a child's skull and remains buried under several inches of concrete. They are now focusing on two bricked-up cellars where a series of victims claim they were subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

Sniffer dogs have indicated that there could be human remains in as many as six other locations on the grounds of the building, although these have yet to be formally investigated.

Builders working on the site in recent years say they came across evidence of child restraints, wooden stocks and other implements that could have been used against children.

Some victims have told of a "deep, dark" place beneath a trap door where youngsters were locked up, drugged and sexually abused. Workmen renovating the building in the past also told of finding shackles, leg irons and wooden stocks.

Police say they have recovered evidence to corroborate victims' accounts, but have declined to elaborate on what they have found. So far, more tha160 victims of alleged abuse have come forward with allegations ranging from physical assaults to rapes. These are alleged to have taken place over a 60-year period.

Police have a list of 40 suspects, who have been described as "respected figures of the establishment" who worked in children's homes in positions of responsibility. Meanwhile, political representatives on the island say all available resources will be used to uncover what happened and bring those responsible to justice.

But the island is also facing up to some deeply unsettling questions.

Why did no one on an island of just 90,000 people speak out about such abuse until now? Is it credible to believe that local government officials or police officers could remain in the dark about abuse on such a large scale?

This, after all, is an island that prides itself on its tightly-knit community. Misdemeanour offences, such as breaking the island's 40-mile-an-hour speed limit, are still dealt with in a localised system called "parish hall inquiries".

The abuse at Haut de la Garenne is an issue that sits uncomfortably with Jersey's residents, particularly long-term ones who tend to have greater links with the island's establishment. Few wish to speak openly about it. The only politician to criticise the actions of authorities, former minister for health Stuart Syvret, claims the island's political elite is a secretive one-party state that has long tolerated "a culture of disregard, abandonment and contempt for children, especially children in need".

He, in turn, has been accused by the island's chief minister Frank Walker of turning the abuse case into a political row and "shafting Jersey internationally".

Few people are willing to give their names when asked about the events unfolding on the hill above Gorey. Many are quick to offer opinions, but almost always in private.

Two older men walking along Gorey pier, both born here, are reluctant to discuss the issue. "It's my understanding that most of what's alleged to have happened occurred during the occupation in the war years," says one. Another middle-aged woman out walking her dog says rumours have swirled around about the institution for years - but no one ever suspected that children might have died. "It was always a scary place, it had that kind of eerie reputation," she says. "A good friend of mine was there as a child and doesn't speak about it. She hints every now and then at what went on, but she finds it difficult to talk about it."

Others, especially newer residents, point to a culture of secrecy on the island as the reason the story has remained hidden until now. "It doesn't surprise me," says a middle-aged utility worker living here for 10 years. "The community can be secretive - you never quite feel part of the island, even if you're living here a long time. They tend to keep outsiders at bay. If you have a problem with that, the local saying here is, 'you know where the port is'."

In many ways, Jersey has always been an island of secrecy. The island - 100 miles south of the English coast and just 12 miles west of France - is neither a country nor a principality.

Its link with the UK is that of a "crown dependency", an archaic term that means it is not subject to British law and pays no taxes to the mainland, except for what is described as a "voluntary" contribution towards defence and diplomatic costs.

It is not accountable to parliament in the UK and is not a member of the European Union. As a self-governing island, it can largely do as it pleases. It has its own legislature, judiciary and currency, raises its own taxes and funds education, health, the police and all other services except defence.

It also applies strict controls over who lives on the island. Long-term residency is only possible once an individual owns a residence or has been living on the island for more than a decade.

However, buying a house is almost impossible for anyone without significant financial means. The only way to bypass these requirements is if you are part of the "11k" club, named after a tax code for those who have assets in excess of £6 million and who pledge to buy a property worth in excess of £1.5 million.

Its low tax rate also means it is a haven for offshore banking and anyone seeking to escape the attentions of the taxman. In recent decades it has developed a major financial industry populated by some of the largest - and most secretive - banks in the world.

While it agreed, under threat of sanctions, to share information on tax evasion in the aftermath of September 11th, it is still host to an estimated £100 billion (€130 million) held in trust funds, banks and other financial institutions.

Its murky Nazi past is still a raw subject for some. Churchill decided early on in the war that the Channel Islands could not be defended, given their close proximity to the French coast. However, the absence of armed resistance to the Germans prompted accusations that the ruling classes collaborated with the Nazis.

And there is also the secret of the women who had sexual relationships with German soldiers and the children who were born as a result. Files released recently indicate there may have been up to 900 such children.

The island itself is ruled by a 52-member assembly called the States of Jersey, headed by a chief minister, and made up of senators, constables and deputies. There are no political parties. Most representatives are drawn from relatively wealthy backgrounds, adopt a broadly conservative approach to island affairs and are intent on protecting the island's independence.

Now, however, Jersey is in the full glare of unwanted international publicity. An island long used to living in the shadows is being forced to reveal some of its secrets.

The voices of people like Peter Hannaford are proving deeply uncomfortable for the island's authorities, who are keen to promote its tourism reputation, which brings in up to 700,000 visitors a year. Now 59 and a trade union official, he was sent to Haut de la Garenne as a child after the death of his parents and spent 12 years at the home.

"Boys and girls were abused while I was there. The abuse was anything from rape to torture. It was men and women who abused us. It happened every night and it happened to everyone. I was scared to go to bed.

"You were threatened with punishment if you said anything, which could have been a whip or anything," he told a local newspaper.

He is expecting to be called to give evidence if charges of abuse are brought as a result of the police investigation, and has felt able to speak of his experiences only recently.

"My experiences at Haut de la Garenne have affected my life. It was not just sexual abuse I suffered, it was physical abuse too."

A woman, who has declined to be named, described a room, about 12ft by 16ft, in which "the most cruel, sadistic and evil acts" were carried out against young victims in the 1970s.

But allegations of abuse are not confined to the past. Social worker Simon Bellwood says he has direct experience of children in care being mistreated as recently as last year. "I found Jersey's childcare system to be reactive, old fashioned and historically underfunded," he said.

Bellwood, who came from the UK mainland to head up a childcare unit on the island last year, was fired by his employers for "incompetence" after raising his concerns. In particular, he described the use of the so-called "grand prix" system of disciplining, where children were placed in pits and kept in total isolation.

"In that sort of atmosphere I can find it entirely believable that a child could disappear and no one ask any questions."

The allegations of a cover-up have led to a major rift in the island's political establishment. Stuart Syvret, a maverick politician who was dismissed as minister for health by other ministers, last year said that abuse against children in more recent years had been allowed to continue in what he termed a "secretive one-party state".

He said his attempts to alert the authorities about these cases had been opposed by Jersey's political elite because of fears of damaging the island's reputation.

"This shows we can't rely on prosecutions to happen when necessary. The over-riding concern of the establishment is the image of Jersey - to prosecute people would be apocalyptically bad for the Jersey establishment," he told reporters.

"There is very little separation of powers, a single layer of government and consequently very few checks and balances on the power of the executive. The island is very dependent on the finance industry. Local oligarchs are the business elite. They work together, play golf together and go to the same parties."

Jersey's chief minister, however, has accused Syvret of making "wild and unsubstantiated allegations". He says the island's authorities and judiciary are of the highest reputation and well able to handle this current inquiry.

THE ALLEGATIONS OF a cover-up are rejected by the local Church of England minister and Irish native, the Rev Canon Dr Peter Williams. "I haven't seen any evidence of a cover-up. I'm only living here a year, but undoubtedly people are trying to make political capital out of claims that it has been concealed," he says. "I think we've got to be careful judging these institutions. They were harsh regimes and there is plenty of evidence of that in other jurisdictions, such as Ireland."

He also says the way the island is governed in often criticised. However, he says it has worked for the island and should serve as an example of good local government.

"There's something very attractive about the way Jersey is run," he says. "It's not threatened by a centralised, bureaucratic civil service. It's much more humane that way . . . If there is a problem, it's that in any successful society people can always be more sympathetic to more vulnerable people and those on the margins."

For those in Ireland affected by institutional child abuse in Ireland, the past week has stirred up painful memories. The sequence of events unfolding in Jersey - claims of abuse being ignored, questioned and later validated - is similar to how events unfolded in Ireland.

"The problem we had was getting our experiences investigated and exposed," says Mick Waters, a former resident of Artane industrial school now living in the UK.

"A major problem in Ireland, as in Jersey, is that these institutions had their own rules. The police didn't enter the premises in Ireland. They effectively had autonomy to do as they pleased."

He is particularly concerned about the 238 children who were identified in the Kennedy Report of 1970 - a report commissioned by the Government into industrial schools - as having absconded.

"I strongly believe that among those are children who were killed. People like Patsy Flanagan, a boy who died in Artane in the 1950s. They claimed he fell off a banister and died - but the trauma to his head and body wasn't consistent with that. There are others just like him whose deaths were never properly investigated."

Despite the painful past, Waters says Jersey can follow the example set in Ireland of dealing with past abuse. "The healing must now begin for those victims, They can learn from what's happened here: the Government apologised, it set up an inquiry into child abuse and it established a redress board. It's been a painful process - but it's helped to bring some form of closure. What happened has been accepted. Now, at last, we're moving on."

Police in Jersey are slowly excavating a number of underground cellars in Haut de la Garenne as part of the ongoing child-abuse investigation. Forensic experts are excavating beneath the youth hostel, which opened in 1869 as a home for boys. The police initially concentrated on an area at the back of the Victorian building, following the discovery of a human skull under several inches of concrete. Using a specially trained sniffer dog, which can detect the scent of human remains, the investigation later widened to at least six other areas in the grounds.

For now, they are focusing on bricked-up cellars beneath the building, which were not featured on any architectural plans for the building. Forensic examiners broke into the first cellar on Wednesday to find a small room filled with rubble, measuring around 3.5m by 3.5m and about 2.5m high.

Several victims have told police they were subjected to physical and sexual abuse in these cellars and say there may well be human remains underground.

Police say they have uncovered "significant" items in the chamber, shackles and a shallow bath, which they say corroborate some of the evidence from former residents of the home. They plan to investigate an adjoining bricked-up room of about the same size, and possibly a third, following a call from a member of the public. The investigation is then likely to focus on the rest of the building, such as the central courtyard and other parts of the grounds.