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House of Horrors: Terrifying truth is there are more Bakers still at large

By Anthony Quinn

It seems so shocking as to be barely credible, as though it came straight out of the imagination of a crime novelist, the photograph of the room in which Keith Baker kept his victim imprisoned for eight years.

The window without curtains, the discoloured walls, the floor without carpets, the ceiling with no light bulb, and the single bed barely large enough for a child, a glimpse into an underworld kept hidden from the rest of society.

A tiny room, but its scale of despair is vastly amplified by the crimes committed there.

A room fit enough to support only the barest form of survival. It must have been a daily struggle for Baker's disabled victim, a woman with severe learning difficulties, against the cold and the dark in that narrow space, a room designed to wear down her defences, never mind having to tolerate the cruelties her custodian meted out.

It says a lot about us in 2017 that a vulnerable woman can disappear in what is still a relatively tightly knit society such as ours in Northern Ireland, never mind being kept as a slave for eight years without anyone raising the alarm.

Her story sounds too horrific to be believed.

The truth is that it's appallingly easy for vulnerable adults to fall through the cracks in our society, and be abused and starved to the point of emaciation.

As a journalist and former social worker, I've seen similar rooms and written about them in my novels, though none as infernal as the one in Baker's anonymous-looking house in a Craigavon estate. Rooms that reek of imprisonment and despair.

The more constricted the space, the less human one becomes. Torturers understand that basic rule of degradation.

The truth is that there are hundreds of rooms like that in Northern Ireland today with modern slaves trapped inside them. Their occupants have arrived by different routes, pimped by people they know, trafficked by organised gangs, or are simply vulnerable or disabled people who have fallen through the safety nets of a society suffering from extreme cuts to vital public services.

These people don't speak willingly about their frightful conditions and suffering.

Vulnerable migrants have their passports removed, work in oppressive conditions and are forced to live in overcrowded houses.

They're nervous of police officers, unsure of their rights and language skills.

It's hard for most of us to believe that there might be other Bakers walking our streets, living in anonymous-looking houses, surrounded by grey people willing to compromise their sense of morality and ignore what's going on under their noses.

My fear is that the degradation of public services, the reduced numbers of trained social workers, community nurses and home helps, as well as depleted voluntary services, will swell their ranks.

Brexit and tougher border controls won't solve the problem of modern slaves.

Freeing them will take a lot more than jailing individuals like Baker.

Busting into those bleak rooms means spending a great deal of money and effort on our public services and improving the plight of vulnerable adults and migrant workers.

  • Anthony Quinn is the author of Disappeared, chosen by the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times as one of the best crime novels of the year. The paperback of his latest novel, Trespass, will be published in June.

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