Dawn Griffiths: After the false dawns, at last a happy ending

Dawn Griffiths made the front page of the first edition of this newspaper in 1990 when her newborn daughter was kidnapped and the media went into a frenzy. The scars of the young mother's ordeal have taken years to heal. Katy Guest meets Dawn Griffiths
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A lot of people at The Independent on Sunday still remember the image on the front of the first issue of this newspaper: a young woman with a dazed smile, leaving a police station holding a 19-day-old baby tightly in her arms. Our first editor, Stephen Glover, recalls in today's New Review how, at the last minute, the reunion of mother and baby saved our front page. But the woman in the picture has no recollection of its being taken. "The whole press conference is an absolute blank to me," she says. "I knew nothing about it at all."

Dawn Griffiths is now a composed 39-year-old with an easy smile. But in January 1990 her life was in a tailspin. Her two-day-old baby had been snatched from St Thomas' hospital by a woman posing as a health visitor. She was missing for a desperate 17 days. "I just remember certain things about the time Alex was gone," Mrs Griffiths recalls. "I remember sitting in the bath, and my mum was with me because I couldn't be on my own. I'd been stitched after the birth, and I saw the stitches floating in the water. I thought, 'My stitches have come out and my daughter's not here.'"

The 17 days that Alexandra Griffiths was missing were 17 days of fingertip searches, police divers, press conferences and media campaigns. The police were certain that she was alive, but the entire country held its breath. Not that Alex's parents were aware of that. For Dawn Griffiths and Geoff Harris, these were 17 days of sleeping tablets, police liaison officers and hoax calls. They would wake up hopeful, start to despair around teatime and by nightfall be "absolutely so down it was unbelievable". When they received a telegram of support from Buckingham Palace, they wondered for a good while how they knew someone who signed herself "Diana".

You'd think, then, that the picture we ran on our first front page showed a happy ending to a frightening story. It did, of course. But for Dawn, Geoff and Alex it was more complicated than that. By the time Alex was three, her parents had separated and her mother had tried to take her own life. When the police and the cameras suddenly melted away after 28 January, the problems didn't. "You'd have thought I'd be jumping from the ceilings that night," says Mrs Griffiths, "but I wasn't. I was just so relieved and so exhausted that all I wanted to do was go to sleep. I let a nurse take her and I fell asleep. After that night I wouldn't let her out of my sight. Nobody ever took her anywhere again."

On the 10th anniversary of that first IoS, my colleague, Cole Moreton, visited Dawn and Alex in Middlesbrough to see how they were getting on. In the two of them and Dawn's second child, Charlie, he found a loving but troubled family. "She's 10 years old now and she can't play outside," Mrs Griffiths told him. "Her brother is five, and he can go out with his friend who lives up the road, but Alex has never been given the opportunity to play with anybody outside the four walls."

It hadn't been an easy 10 years. "These days, you'd get counselling just like that, the day she went," says Mrs Griffiths. But in 1990, after they had done their jobs, the police and doctors vanished. Alex had been found in a cottage in rural Oxfordshire. She had been taken by a woman called Janet Griffiths, who hoped to persuade her lover to leave his wife by pretending that she'd had his baby. An estate agent, alerted by the woman's suspicious behaviour, had informed the police. Janet Griffiths (who was no relation) was sent to a secure psychiatric hospital; Alex was returned to her parents; the family was left to cope alone. Immediately after, a solicitor had been found for Alex's parents and in the blur a newspaper deal was signed with News International. The group gave Dawn Griffiths £110,000 for her exclusive story; its rivals were furious.

"The stories that were coming out were absolutely ridiculous," says Mrs Griffiths now. "There was one that said I got nine out of 10 for sex in bed with this guy. I mean, I knew him, but I'd certainly never had sex with him. There hadn't even been dates! And there was another where Geoff was supposed to have fathered this other child. But we worked out that if he had done it he would have been about 12 when it happened. The Mirror was going in my local shop and asking what kind of nappies I was buying."

London, where young Dawn Griffiths had been working as a nanny for two years, suddenly felt like a terribly lonely place. Traumatised by their experience, she and Alex's father split and mother and baby returned to Middlesbrough. But the mud had stuck. Strangers would accost them, wanting to see and hold the child, wanting to call her mother a slut.

Alex was three when her mother took an overdose of antidepressants in the belief that her daughter would be better off without her. "I suppose, in a way, that I thought when she came back it would be hunky-dory, gorgeous, beautiful" she says. "But it was not like that. I didn't really bond with her. I was scared because I thought she was going to go again."

Janet Griffiths was released after seven months in hospital; four years later, she died of cancer. But the 17 days she kept Alex shadowed the family. It was only after the suicide attempt that Dawn Griffiths was finally offered counselling. "I'd been a nanny, and I had this vision about how to look after your kids and what you do, and I thought I wasn't good enough," she says. "But I look at her now, and she's at Manchester University doing a maths degree." She laughs. "So I'm definitely good enough!"

Talk to Alex now, and there is no sign that anything about her upbringing ever fell short of good enough. On Friday, she spent the evening at a dance contest. Tomorrow she has a second-round interview for a business scholarship. She knows that her mother is worried about her getting the late train home on a weekend by herself; but she also knows that few mothers wouldn't be. "My mum has definitely turned a corner, but a gradual one," she says. "But then, I'm a very independent person, and I have expressed that independence. So she didn't really have any choice."

When women on her council estate used to accost Dawn Griffiths and call her a greedy cow for taking the newspapers' money, what they didn't know was what she had done with it. She still lives, today, in the Thorntree area of Middlesbrough, where a taxi driver tells me not to wait in the street and warns that I probably won't even be offered a cuppa. (I am, twice.) Mrs Griffiths put the £110,000 into a trust for Alex, and used it to send her to Polam Hall, a prestigious girls' school in Darlington. "I can't turn the clocks back, but what I can do is make something positive out of it," she says. "And the fact is that she's at university. And how many kids that live on council estates are in uni?"

In recent years, when Alex passed her A-levels and when she was offered a place at Manchester, the media have caught up with the family in an attempt to find the happy ending that went astray for them in 1990. Often it seems they have found it, only for it to slip away again. Relationships have broken up. Alex's brother, Charlie, has been diagnosed with ADHD, and then Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare and life-threatening skin condition. But it looks as if Charlie has his family's newly positive outlook on life. "He had to have his nose cauterised in hospital recently," his mother laughs, unexpectedly, "and [ITV's] The Real ER were there. And they filmed him. He'll be chuffed to bits: it's always Alex on the telly."

Dawn Griffiths is now happily married to Mark Hunter. "Call me Griffiths," she shrugs. "Well, everyone knows that name." So is this the happy ending that she has waited 19 years to find? "Oh God, yeah." she laughs. "I hope so." And then she adds: "You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, do you? I tend to live each day as it comes. I don't like planning too far ahead. It gets scary if you do."

Alex isn't planning too far ahead, either. She doesn't know what her future holds – though her mother is certain she will get "a good job: one she enjoys". The family doesn't do much looking back – although Mrs Griffiths says she always cries on Alex's birthday. I phone Alex and tell her this as she sits on the late train home from the dance contest, and she laughs. "Oh, the crying's not a big deal," she giggles. "Mum's just like that. She's a bit emotional."