UK Family Law Reform

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Landmark decision in the High Court

Margaret Jervis writes:

The victory of the two falsely accused Newcastle nursery nurses in the High Court in London on 30th July 2002 is a landmark decision for investigative reliability in child abuse accusations. After a trial lasting 74 days, Dawn Reed and Christopher Lillie were each awarded £200,000 in maximum damages for having been maliciously libelled by a Newcastle City Council-appointed review team of three social workers and one psychologist. "I am quite satisfied that each of the Claimants [Chris and Dawn] have merited an award at the highest permitted level", said the trial judge, Mr Justice Eady. "Indeed, they have earned it several times over because of the scale, gravity and persistence of the allegations and of the aggravating factors."

In his 400 page judgment, (available online in three parts [1], [2] & [3]). the judge highlights the intellectual dishonesty of the review team in compiling their report, Abuse in Early Years. The report, published in 1998, had branded the two innocent former nursery workers as bizarre and dangerous paedophiles who were abusing young children both in the nursery and in the local area in concert with others in an unknown 'paedophile ring'.

The full judgment is a model critique of the flawed investigative techniques and theories that arose in the 1980s in tandem with the 'recovered memory' methodology which affected so many families in the 1990s. Dawn's original solicitor contacted the British False Memory Society in 1993 as the case against her and Chris mushroomed along similar lines as the notorious McMartin and Kelly Michaels daycare cases had done in the US.

At that time, the susceptibility of young children to the creation of false narratives by virtue of the beliefs of the investigators, was already recognised in the United States. The research by Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck into children's suggestibility formed the basis of an authoritative amicus brief - a consensual opinion by leading psychologists to help the Court - that became the linchpin in quashing the conviction against Kelly Michaels in New Jersey.

Ceci and Bruck's research discredited the application of Roland Summit's accommodation theory which was being used as a potent and dangerous diagnostic and investigative tool in suspected cases of sexual assault. The Summit theory postulated a whole range of symptoms as evidence of 'hidden' memories of severe abuse. Even an absence of symptoms could be taken as an abuse indicator. Absolute denial or gradual, often contradictory, disclosure, according to Summit, needed to be nurtured through play props such as anatomically correct dolls, in order that the presumed psychological trauma could be exposed thus allowing the 'victim' to be 'healed'. The 'accommodation theory' was the therapeutic engine which drove the Shieldfield allegations way beyond the criminal pre-trial acquittal of the nurses in July 1994. New allegations were still being made as a result of therapy even as the review team, by then appointed by Newcastle City Council, started to examine the case in 1996.

Because it was aware of the damage caused by the defective methods and beliefs employed in the investigative process, the BFMS sent the review team the Kelly Michaels amicus brief and other information about the US cases, including the Ceci and Bruck research. This should, at least, have alerted the team to the similarities between the cases on both sides of the Atlantic, but when the Abuse in Early Years report appeared, not only was the tainted police and social services investigation upheld, but the key material sent by the BFMS was denigrated as being 'unsolicited' and irrelevant. This implied smear was made not only against the BFMS but included psychologist Dr Bryan Tully, a BFMS advisory board member. Dr Tully, a defence expert for the criminal case, had offered to give evidence to the review team; evidence which he maintains would have helped the team to come to entirely different conclusions, but the team deliberately chose to refuse to hear his evidence.

This biased hostility arose again at the libel trial when counsel for the review team tried to insinuate that Chris and Dawn had been pushed into bringing the case by the BFMS - an accusation which had no foundation in fact. The BFMS does however stand by its commitment to provide relevant and accurate scientific information in the interests of justice.

Through his careful judgment, which rejects the investigative methodology of both the review team and the initial police and social services inquiry, Mr Justice Eady highlights the fact that the team ignored the relevant scientific knowledge, some of which had been provided by the BFMS. But what was not revealed during the trial was why it might be predicted that certain members of the review team would take a blanket oppositional stance to both the BFMS and any other objective analysis which could have been provided to the team.

One of the social work experts appointed to the team was Judith Jones. Ms Jones, together with her partner, journalist Beatrix Campbell, has been a longstanding opponent of the BFMS. As part of a campaign to uphold 'recovered memory' theory, both Campbell and Jones have sought to blacken the name of the BFMS over many years. The most flagrant example of this was in their 1999 co-written book Stolen Voices which sought to portray, through misinformation and misrepresentation, the BFMS and other critics, as part of a 'paedophile's lobby'. Unsurprisingly, the totally unfounded slurs in the book resulted in a queue of people intending to take legal action. Responding to the first of many potential claims, the publishers withdrew the book the day before publication.

One facet of Ms Jones' campaign against the BFMS was the setting up of a group of therapists and 'recovered memory' clients, Daughters and Their Allies (DATA). Based in Newcastle, the group's specific object was to discredit the BFMS and promote 'recovered memory' claims. However, very little is known about this shadowy organisation.

Ms Jones was also, under her married name Judith Dawson, an instigator of the 'satanic abuse' scare in Nottingham in 1989. Her pivotal role in disseminating false information fuelled the Rochdale and Orkneys abuse fiascos. The reckless approach adopted by Judith Dawson/Jones in investigating these cases was identified by a joint police social services inquiry in the JET report. However, having been accepted by the police, and social services director, David White, planned publication of the summary final report was successfully blocked by Ms Dawson and her team who waged a campaign of slur and innuendo against the authors of the report. The upshot was that belief in satanic abuse and the unsound methods of investigation continued to permeate the world of welfare professionals and activists, with Ms Dawson retaining unjustified influence for many years.

The one psychologist on the Newcastle panel, Dr Jacqui Saradjian, also had an ideological axe to grind. A former teacher, she studied under psychologist Helga Hanks at Leeds University. Dr Hanks was a supporter of 'satanic abuse' and a member of the Leeds team that included Drs Jane Wynne and Christopher Hobbs. Their promotion of the now discredited 'anal dilatation' diagnosis of sexual abuse created havoc and injustice in Cleveland in 1987 when it was applied by Dr Marietta Higgs and others. Ms Saradjian, who has specialised in women as abusers, is also a believer in the 'recovered memory' method of accessing narratives that reinforce her ideology, including her belief in 'satanic abuse.'

All that was required to promote the production of a report which would, in the words of the judge, include "fundamental claims [the Review team] must have known to be untrue" was for Newcastle City Council to appoint Dr Richard Barker, a social work lecturer, as leader of the team. The judge stated that Dr Barker was a man who "eschewed rational analysis in the approach to his task from the outset". His evidence was so poor that the judge said he "was unable to place reliance upon anything said by Professor Barker, for any significant purpose, unless it was independently corroborated". Acting as "a law unto himself" Barker and the team were to "promulgate to the Council and to the wider public what was recognised within days … to be a specious and disreputable document".

Now that the Shieldfield Nursery abuse fiasco has finally been laid to rest, questions must be asked as to how it came to develop from the outset. Close critical scrutiny needs to be paid to a wide range of welfare services and the professionals involved, not least Dr Camille San Lazaro, the consultant paediatrician who falsely diagnosed so many children as having been abused. Mr Justice Eady said, "The truth is that where physical findings were negative or equivocal, Dr San Lazaro [who had trained with Dr Marietta Higgs] was prepared to make up the deficiencies by throwing objectivity and scientific rigour to the winds in a highly emotional misrepresentation of the facts."

The fact is that many of the key personnel in the Shieldfield case are part of an ideological axis stretching back through Nottingham to Cleveland. That it has taken nine years to nail the myth of Shieldfield indicates that the misinformation this faction continues to promulgate within the welfare, police and criminal justice systems continues to cloud professional judgment. Unfortunately the media, as was seen in the trial with the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and other mainstream newspapers, all too often follows suit. It is therefore all the more remarkable and gratifying that Mr Justice Eady has been able to cut a swathe through their emotive, pseudo-scientific claims.

Anyone involved in this field should read the full judgment; not only does it endorse sound theory and practice in child abuse investigations, but it calls for a return to the fundamental principles of natural justice, reason and humanity.

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