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Island's 'culture of secrecy'

by Julian Joyce
BBC News

Stuart Syvret
Stuart Syvret says Jersey's elite have tried to silence him.

The local politician who highlighted the issue of abusive childcare practices on Jersey has accused the island's establishment of a "culture of concealment" and of frustrating efforts to help vulnerable children.

Stuart Syvret, a former health and social security minister on Jersey before he was dismissed last year, said that abuse against island children had been allowed to continue in what he termed a "secretive one-party state".

Mr Syvret, who still serves as an island senator, said that his attempts to alert the authorities to what he termed the "systematic disregard" of the rights of vulnerable children had been opposed by Jersey's political elite because of fears of damaging the island's reputation.

Jersey's chief minister has accused Mr Syvret of making "wild and unsubstantiated allegations" and of attempting to make "political capital" out of a local scandal.

But a social worker sacked by Jersey authorities after he also drew attention to alleged abusive childcare practices also spoke of an "old-fashioned and underfunded" child-care system on Jersey where dissent is discouraged.

Harsh punishments

Early in 2007, Mr Syvret, who has been a senator for 17 years, said he felt he needed to go public on his concerns about Jersey's child care system.

He said: "I began to hear accounts of criminality. The more I investigated, the clearer it became that there was a systemic failure."

What Mr Syvret says he began to uncover were allegations of child abuse on Jersey going back over half a century.

Former junior staff and former children's home inmates - including those who had lived in the Haut de la Garenne home where police have recently discovered a child's body - told him of beating, canings and other harsh punishments for the most trivial of offences.

In that sort of atmosphere I can find it entirely believable that a child could disappear and no-one ask any questions
Simon Bellwood, former Jersey social worker

It is claimed that children were routinely punched in the back of the head for not walking with a straight back. Witnesses told of children being caned with birches.

In December 2007 before he was - in his words - "shouted down" by his colleagues in the States Assembly, Mr Syvret had attempted to expose what he described as a "culture of disregard, abandonment and contempt for children".

He said: "My fellow States colleagues did not want to hear. It displayed the very same culture of cover-up and silencing of anyone in Jersey who attempts to speak out."

However, unknown to Mr Syvret, Jersey police had been conducting their own parallel investigation, culminating in the intensive search of Haute de la Garenne, and a number of other sites where it is feared more bodies may be buried.

So far more that 140 possible victims or witnesses of alleged abuse have come forward and, according to the chief investigating officer Lenny Harper, the allegations range from physical assaults to rapes over a 60-year period.

Respected figures

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.

For Mr Syvret, the fact that it has taken so long for the allegations to be investigated is testament to what he describes as Jersey's "conservative, closed society".

 Deputy Chief Police Officer Lenny Harper
"No evidence" of a cover-up says investigator Lenny Harper.

He said: "Jersey operates like a one-party state. 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.

"What that means, is that when a scandal happens their first reaction is stamp on controversy. While they may not have any connection with the case, their attitude is: don't air dirty laundry in public; it might damage Jersey's reputation."

'Grand Prix'

Social worker Simon Bellwood claims he has first-hand experience of how the Jersey establishment treats dissenters. He says he was sacked after he exposed a controversial "Grand Prix" disciplinary system being operated in a children's secure unit.

His employers say he was fired for "incompetence", although Mr Bellwood will challenge this at a tribunal next month.

He said: "Under this system children deemed to be in the Grand Prix "Pits" were routinely subjected to periods of total isolation. I found this unacceptable, and reported this my superiors."

But every time I raised the issue I came across attitudes like: 'Do as your boss tells you: don't challenge authority.'"

Mr Bellwood, who came from the UK mainland to head up the Greenfields residential unit in 2007, said: "I found Jersey's childcare system to be reactive, old fashioned and historically underfunded.

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

Children's rights

What disturbs campaigners is that some practices - such as putting children in isolation for long periods - were described as "most unacceptable" in an official States-commissioned report in 2001 - but allowed to remain as official policy in a States-run children's home.

To critics that - and the lack of an independent inspection system for children's homes in Jersey - are emblematic of a system that downgrades the protection of children.

A spokesman for the States of Jersey said there was "no evidence" that Jersey's child-care system was under-resourced, and that an initial independent report on the Greenfields secure unit had been favourable. A full report on Jersey's childcare system is due to be published next month.

Jersey First Minister Frank Walker accused Mr Syvret of "having his own agenda".

He said: "You have to ask yourself why someone who had been in post for eight years only started to make these allegations about child abuse in 2007."

Morale

He said that Mr Syvret had been removed from his post as health minister not because of his campaign, but because he had "undermined the morale" of his own staff.

"It is my belief that the police investigation would have had exactly the same result, regardless of Mr Syvret's intervention," he said.

He dismissed the wider allegations of a culture of concealment: "We have 52 members of the States Assembly, all independent and all ready to speak their mind," he said. "The police themselves say there is no evidence of a cover-up."




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