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Care worker abuse case begs questions

Question time: prosecutor Christof Scheuer at a media conference Keystone

Families and carers are reeling from revelations of large-scale sexual abuse by a care worker in eight Swiss residential homes for the mentally disabled over 29 years.

This content was published on February 3, 2011 - 13:40
swissinfo.ch and agencies

Prevention and control practices are now under the spotlight as those concerned ask how this level of abuse could have gone undetected for so long.














The 54-year-old man been has admitted abusing more than 100 children and adults with physical and mental disabilities. Evidence against the man includes photos and hours of video in which he recorded the abuse.

A representative of the cantonal authorities in Bern, where five of the affected homes are located, said the criminal energy of the self-confessed offender left him speechless.

“It is highly unusual in this sector for someone to have this kind of criminal potential,” said the head of the youth department of the Bern cantonal office for age and disability, Michel Horn.  

Open door

 

The authorities want to give the affected homes as much support as possible while awaiting the findings of the investigation, he said.

“It is important for institutions to keep reminding their employees about the theme of abuse. The management should check that this happens and that the available policies are implemented so that everyone knows the door is open to report any suspicions.”

Psychologist Allan Guggenbühl agrees that the problems of sexuality have to be regularly discussed.

“It has to be challenged in further education, it has to be challenged in meetings and talked about so that everyone is aware that there is always a danger of abuse there and that there's always a necessity to draw a strict line between one's self and one's own personality and the children,” he told swissinfo.ch.

Suspicions

 

The man did appear on the radar once before, in 2003, after a 13-year-old severely disabled girl accused him of sexual abuse.

That probe was dropped after experts decided the accusations concerned another care worker, who was later sentenced to several years in prison. The 2003 case will now be reopened.

The ordinariness of the abuser is often his best disguise, according to Guggenbühl.

“When we hear about abuse like this we immediately have the impression of a monster but it’s quite likely he was also a very friendly, warm person at the same time who was trusted by the children.”

The best defence is to ensure the person does not gain the position of trust in the first place.  

Suzanne Jacquemet, director of residence for 256 mentally disabled adults in Bern, said controls and checks were particularly important in recruitment.

“We take a close look at every application and question anything that stands out, such as frequently changing jobs.

“If anything is left unclear we make sure to find out, to talk to previous employers and ask the applicant. If anything does not fit the person will not be taken on,” she added.

Duty of care

 

Jacquemet said the effectiveness of outside inspections was limited. “If you come to an institution for a day you cannot get an insight into the everyday workings of the place.”

Parents also have a role to play in protecting their children, Heidi Lauper of the association of parents of mentally disabled children, Insieme, told Swiss radio.

“Parents must always insist that the institutions have proper policies and training in place. Both must take their duty as protectors seriously.”

Lauper also stressed that children with a mental disability should also receive sex education.

“Parents should demand this... It is important that disabled children also learn for themselves how to set limits and resist potential attacks.”

The case

Police first became aware of the suspect in March 2010, after two male residents of a care home in canton Aargau informed their parents of sexual contact with the therapist.

During 50 police interviews he admitted sexually abusing 114 mentally disabled patients, some of whom also had physical disabilities, police said. He also admitted eight further cases of attempted abuse.

The man was subsequently arrested at his home in the Bernese Oberland, in central Switzerland. Police said he has cooperated with investigators since his arrest,

describing himself as a paedophile.

Authorities have identified 122 of the victims, with the youngest being 1 year old at the time of the crime. Forty-two of the victims were over 18.

The abuse took place over a 29-year period in eight care homes in Switzerland and one in Germany.

A hotline has been set up for those affected.

The majority of abuses have passed the statute of limitations. Police say that under Swiss law, the man can only be prosecuted for 33 of them.

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