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U.K. police search suspected children's home

Police on Wednesday broke into a bricked-up room in the cellar of a children's home that is the focus of a child abuse investigation on the British territory of  St. Martin, Jersey.
Police are excavating several sites in the grounds of a former children's home on the English Channel island of Jersey as more allegations emerge of child abuse spanning several decades.
Gary Grimshaw / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cyril Turner has vivid memories of his time at Haut de la Garenne, a forbidding Victorian-era home for troubled children where a child’s skull has been dug up and where police fear they will discover the bones of more young victims.

None of Turner’s memories are good: He recalls beatings and a culture of fear that led to an escape attempt that ended in a car crash which landed him in the hospital for a year.

After decades of silence and shame, the truth about the imposing brown stone building overlooking the sea is slowly emerging as victims of suspected abuse speak out.

Turner, 49, is one of at least 150 people who have come forward to complain about physical, mental and sexual abuse they say was committed at the home before it closed in 1986.

All but a few have remained anonymous as a police investigation unfolds. Most of the victims came forward after authorities set up a confidential hot line in November as part of an investigation into accusations of serious abuse at the home in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

One victim, 59-year-old Peter Hannaford, told a local newspaper he and other children were raped nearly every night for several years. He refused to discuss his ordeal when contacted by The Associated Press.

Child's remains found
“What they did to me was wrong,” said Turner, who was sent to the home at age 13 for repeated truancy and is now a father of four who lives in the Jersey village of St. Clement. “I was afraid every night and finally I did a runner with two older boys.”

The abuse allegations and grisly discovery Saturday of a child’s remains have punctured the idyllic image of this British island off the coast of France and its reputation as a tax haven with beautiful beaches, French food and English efficiency.

That has been replaced by grim images of Haut de la Garenne, an austere structure set on a cliff overlooking stormy seas, where victims say the people in charge treated children as captives to be tortured, raped and cast aside.

Unsettling questions are being asked: Are there more victims buried on the grounds or hidden in a bricked-up cellar discovered inside the building? Could the perpetrators of abuse be a friend, a neighbor or other acquaintance?

One suspect, a 76-year-old man, has been arrested and charged with indecent assault for allegedly abusing three young girls at the home from 1969 to 1979.

Dogs used in search for more remains
Police scouring the property said Wednesday that a dog trained to search for human remains picked up a “very strong reaction” — raising fears the grounds may conceal more gruesome secrets.

“It would appear as if the cellar is exactly as some of the witnesses ... and victims have described,” Jersey deputy police chief Lenny Harper said, adding that an initial inspection showed there may be a second bricked-up room leading off the area.

The saga of Haut de la Garenne, which means “Forest Heights,” began when it was opened in 1867 as an industrial school designated for “young people of the lower classes of society and neglected children.” At the time, many juvenile delinquents were also placed there.

Later it became known as the Jersey Home for Boys, though at times both boys and girls were housed there. And what should have been a happy place filled with the sounds of playing children became, according to the victims, an institution where children lived in silent terror.

The rundown home was shuttered in 1986 and the children were moved to other institutions. After an extensive renovation, it reopened in 2004 as a youth hostel popular for its views of the countryside and the open sea.

Many people in Britain know the building because it was used as a police station in a popular television drama, “Bergerac.” During World War II, it was used by the Nazis as a signaling station when the Germans occupied Jersey.

The hostel is currently closed because it is offseason. Its nameplate is covered with a sheet, apparently so photographs of the crime scene won’t destroy the hostel’s reputation.

Some victims stoic
Many of the 88,000 people who live on this fiercely independent territory owned by the British monarchy seem stunned as the magnitude of the tragedy unfolds. Jersey’s religious leaders have warned tearful congregations of “dark and evil days ahead.”

Some of the victims have taken a stoic attitude to the horrors they lived through.

Turner’s 1971 escape ended badly when he and his friends crashed their getaway car — but he still thinks the year spent recovering in a hospital was far better than remaining at Haut de la Garenne.

He recalls being hit over the head with pillows filled with boots and shoes during the several weeks he spent in the home.

“You’d go to bed and pow, they’d get you,” Turner told the AP. “Times change. It was acceptable back then. It wasn’t just me, it was a lot of the children, most of the children.”

Hannaford, who came forward with rape allegations in the local press, refused Wednesday to discuss them with the AP.

“I’m definitely not going to talk about it anymore,” Hannaford said. He seemed upset by the attention the front-page story about his ordeal has generated.

His wife also refused to discuss the case.

“He’s been through enough, and today he’s going to be interviewed by the police,” she said. “He doesn’t want to talk and I respect his wishes.”

Stories of rapes, routine beatings
In the newspaper interview, Hannaford described how the children were held down and forced to submit to sex and to routine beatings and other forms of physical abuse. An orphan who was sent to the home soon after he was born, Hannaford managed to leave at age 12.

The Very Rev. Robert Key, who presides over Jersey’s religious hierarchy as the Dean of Jersey, said the alleged abuses stem from a culture that gave too little thought to the welfare of children.

“Trust was misplaced,” Key said in the aged Church of Gouray, located near the coast below Haut de la Garenne.

“In those years, coming out of the 19th century, we didn’t have the right view of children. Children were almost routinely beaten and so on, you think of Dickens and all of that. And that kind of culture, where children didn’t have the same rights as adults, continued,” he said.