A UK social worker has helped to spark a major inquiry into children’s services in Jersey amid widespread concerns about child protection on the island.
Simon Bellwood was sacked after making a complaint about a “Dickensian” system in a secure unit where children as young as 11 were routinely locked up for 24 hours or more in solitary confinement.
Practitioners including Bellwood claim children in Jersey are being put at risk in child care services because of deficient practice, poor staff training, lack of external scrutiny of services and a “culture of fear” preventing staff from speaking out.
Bellwood, 33, who took the job of centre manager at the Greenfields secure unit on the island in August last year, claims he was “criticised for having a problem with punishment” when he raised concerns about holding children in solitary confinement in a policy then in place known as Grand Prix.
A document laying out the policy, seen by Community Care, states that children were placed in their rooms for 24 hours on arriving at the centre. They were also placed in solitary confinement for 24 hours for repeated bad behaviour.
Bellwood claims he withdrew the policy in October 2006. But he said elements of it were revived while he was away from the unit and in January 2007, he submitted a formal complaint against the “abusive” child care practice. His complaint was not upheld.
Bellwood, who is being backed by the British Association of Social Workers, claims he was put on “gardening leave” while investigations were carried out and then sacked in May on the grounds of incapability – a charge he strongly disputes.
“I was trying to offer the therapeutic environment I had been told they wanted, but the harsh truth was that punishment and fear had worked so well in the past that the senior managers saw no reason to change anything,” he said.
“If I had known that I would be powerless to change their punitive practices and that I would be expected to put these vulnerable young people into single separation for hours or days at a time, I would never have taken the job.”
Bellwood said that during his suspension from Greenfields, all of the practices he complained about were again withdrawn.
The social worker, whose case is due to be considered by the Jersey employment tribunal early next year, says he has “paid the ultimate price for whistleblowing about matters of serious concern”.
Bellwood said: “It has never been about me. If it were, then I would have been better off keeping my mouth shut and my head down all these past months. I just want justice for these children who deserve a better deal than the one they are currently enduring.”
In an extraordinary chain of events, Bellwood appealed to Jersey’s health and social services minister Stuart Syvret who acted on his complaint and subsequently became embroiled in an explosive political row.
Syvret’s political career is now on the brink after he claimed ministers were attempting to “whitewash” his criticisms of children’s services.
Last week, as ministers prepared a vote of no confidence in Syvret, the Jersey government announced it was appointing UK social work consultant Andrew Williamson to carry out an independent review of children’s services on the island, including Greenfields.
Williamson was appointed on the advice of Lord Laming, who carried out the Victoria Climbié inquiry. Jersey’s chief minister Frank Walker said the inquiry would “end the current uncertainty” over whether children on the island were at risk.
Jersey chief executive Bill Ogley also said Syvret’s allegations about children’s services in Jersey had been levelled “without evidence” to support them – a claim Syvret and others strongly dispute.
The Howard League for Penal Reform has condemned the Grand Prix confinement system as constituting “inhumane and degrading” treatment of children.
In a document seen by Community Care, due to be submitted to the Jersey government this week, Chris Callender, assistant director of the Howard League, slammed the practice of holding children in isolation for 24 hours.
He said it was “unlikely to be lawful” in England and Wales and warned children subjected to such a system could claim damages under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Jon Banwell, chair of the Secure Accommodation Network, which represents local authority secure children’s homes in the UK, said the system was “worrying” and called it more “akin to a prison regime than to a specialist secure unit”.
In one of his many exchanges with other ministers this month, Syvret said: “We have been treating these ‘looked-after’ children in custody in a manner that is – unambiguously – torture.”
Bellwood’s case has emerged five years after a highly critical report on Jersey’s children’s services by UK social worker and then Ofsted inspector Dr Kathie Bull.
But according to one Jersey-based source, who contacted Community Care on the basis of anonymity for “fear of reprisals”, few of Bull’s recommendations have been implemented.
“The Jersey government spent a lot of money on the Bull report and they have done nothing despite having the past five years to act,” the source said. “Children’s needs are not fully being met. Care homes are overcrowded and there are not enough trained staff.”
The source claimed a lack of investment and politicians’ “determination to cover up” the problems facing children’s services on the island had led to lack of action over the Bull report.
The source was “not confident” the Williamson review would take services forward.
Another Jersey-based source, also speaking to Community Care anonymously, said the Jersey establishment “made it difficult for anyone to tell the truth” when raising concerns about children’s services.
The two main children’s homes on the island – which were recommended for closure in the Bull report – remain open, the source said.
The source claimed that a lack of training and investment meant staff were “reduced to fire-fighting” and said individuals who complained about poor practice were “isolated by the establishment”. The source, who said he would leave the island if Williamson’s inquiry did not lead to improvements in children’s services, called for Williamson to speak to staff “at the coalface”.
A UK social worker, who left Jersey after just one week last year, told Community Care he had been “shocked” by the quality of care in Greenfields where children entering the unit were placed in a “bleak” cell without a mattress. Speaking anonymously, he said: “I was told the procedure was the same for all children regardless of assessed risk or state of mind,” he said. “Field social work staff had complained but were frightened to kick up a fuss as they were afraid they would never work in Jersey again.”
The social worker said. “I asked other social workers about this procedure and at least one said she had raised concerns about a child in the unit on welfare grounds being placed in a cell as part of this procedure.”
The social worker told Community Care he also believed traumatised children in services across the island were being put at risk because staff were not subjected to adequate checks, and said checks on his own identity including phone calls to previous employers were not followed up.
“At least three members of the team in which I was based said they had made complaints about child care practice and other work-related issues and were told, in effect, not to rock the boat,” he added.
When the social worker submitted an official complaint about the services, he was informed there was no need for remedial action.
When questioned by Community Care about whether staff were afraid to raise concerns for fear of reprisal, Ogley said the inquiry would “investigate these allegations” and would make recommendations to “ensure the highest standards of child care and child protection”.
Bellwood alleges that elements of the Jersey establishment have blocked proper scrutiny of services – a claim repeated by other sources.
He said: “My concerns are that Jersey’s child care system is self-regulated. There are insufficient checks and balances to ensure standards are met and that the safety and welfare of children is safeguarded. They claim to aspire to best practice but in reality they cherry-pick policies from the UK.
“I would hope that a small community like Jersey could learn from the tragic incidents that have been experienced in the UK and avoid a similar episode occurring here. It is my fear that in Jersey there is a tragedy waiting to happen.”
Bellwood, who is setting up an independent children and families social work service on Jersey, added: “In my opinion, truth lies with the young people, and with the staff who carry out the daily tasks. If both parties could speak openly without fear of reprisal, then truth will come out.”
● Has own system of administration and law and parliament, the States of Jersey.
Simon Bellwood CV
● Qualified as social worker in 2002.
Greenfields Secure Unit
● Unit for at-risk and vulnerable children from age 10 to school leaving age.
December 2002: A report by Dr Kathie Bull, from Ofsted, highlights serious concerns about children’s services on Jersey and calls for closure of island’s children’s homes
September 2006: Greenfields secure unit officially opened.
January 2007: Greenfields manager, UK social worker Simon Bellwood, raises complaints about current and historic practice at centre. He is put on gardening leave.
May 2007: Bellwood is sacked.
July 2007: Jersey health and social services minister Stuart Syvret raises Bellwood’s case and other allegations about children’s services.
August 2007: Ministers in Jersey move to vote of no confidence in Syvret. Jersey government announces independent investigation into child protection on the island by UK social work consultant Andrew Williamson.
Full statement from Bill Ogley
States of Jersey statement on children’s inquiry
States of Jersey vote of no confidence in Stuart Syvret
Jersey Whistleblower: Why I went on the record
The Child Minder – How the story unfolded
Editorial Comment: Send for the inspectors
Jersey: Child protection inquiry widens
Thinking of blowing the whistle?