Jersey care home debacle and the rule of the mob
The shambolic inquiry into ‘murders’ at Haut de la Garenne once again illustrates the hysteria that surrounds child abuse investigations
If you spot a conclusion, leap to it. This is a principle often and dangerously embraced by police forces, and it has led down the years both to miscarriages of justice and to a huge waste of police time and resources. When it comes to accusations of paedophilia - which stands in the modern pantheon of potential evil alongside the witchcraft of yesteryear - the police frequently have eager allies in both social services and the experts. Today's suspension of the Jersey police chief, Graham Power, just might – when the next 'scandal' breaks – cause future investigators to pause for thought.
The story of Haut de la Garenne, the former Jersey children's home at which it was stated with very few 'ifs' or 'buts' that children had been abused and even murdered, has been a shambles. Remember how in February the world's media, the scent of blood upon their nostrils, descended on the Channel Island after allegations by former child residents led police to 'discover' a charnel house of human remains.
Only, they didn't. A fragment of skull proved to be a Victorian coconut shell; 'shackles' were a rusty piece of metal; what human remains there were - and most of the bone fragments were from animals – dated from the year dot; there weren't even blood stains. And the inquiry to establish these forensic truths has cost the taxpayer a cool £4m.
Of course paedophilia exists, and of course it is one of the most dreadful crimes, but for the past 20 years or so it has attracted a distorting amount of attention. Haut de la Garenne is far from the first investigation that has ended with egg all over a lot of faces. In 1987 over 100 parents in Cleveland, north-east England, were accused of abusing their children, 80 per cent of whom were eventually returned to their innocent parents. In one case, the 'injuries' that led to the accusations were blackberry bush scratches. In 1991 nine children were 'rescued' from abusing homes in dawn raids on the Scottish Orkney Islands, only for the accusations later to be dismissed as fantasy.
In many such cases 'experts' have embraced a theory just as keenly as police jump to conclusions. In Cleveland, Dr Marietta Higgs believed that by looking at and probing a child's bottom, she could see if there was Reflex Anal Dilatation – or RAD. She insisted that RAD – devised to detect homosexual abuse – showed if a child had been interfered with. It was later established RAD can appear quite spontaneously.
Another 'theory', embraced by psychologists, was 'recovered memory syndrome', the belief that children who had supposedly suppressed memories of sexual abuse could be induced to remember these 'abuses'. However, in many cases what they 'remembered' had never happened. In the mid 1990s I visited a man serving a long jail term in a US prison for allegedly abusing his daughters many years previously. When the girls made their accusations, he was so shocked he simply said that, although he had no memory of any such thing, if they said so he must have done it. Later he convincingly denied the abuse, but by then he was firmly behind bars.
The recriminations over the Jersey case look set to run and run – Mr Power has "strenuously" denied any wrong-doing and pledges to fight any allegations. Whatever now comes out in the wash, the watchword in future cases might be – for police and experts alike – to look before they leap. ·
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