Couples describe human cost of false accusations: Case studies show parents seeking treatment for their children's injuries are presumed to be guilty

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The Independent Online
HARRY FISHER (not his real name) lives with his wife Elizabeth and their five children in a small village close to a large city in the North of England. In January 1986, the Fishers were accused of sexually abusing their five year-old daughter, Paula. In three separate incidents over the previous months, Paula had hurt herself, twice while playing boisterously, causing bleeding from her vagina.

After the third accident, Mrs Fisher took her to hospital. Mrs Fisher had told a police surgeon, another doctor and a social worker of the previous accidental injuries. But while Paula was detained in hospital, her parents were accused of sexual abuse.

Mrs Fisher said the hospital staff made their minds up quickly and became 'cold'. She was questioned by a doctor and a group of others; she broke down under 'aggressive' questioning and felt humiliated. Mr Fisher recalls: 'The doctor made sure that every nurse on the ward and every parent who had a sick child in there was told of my alleged crime against my daughter. At home, angry shouts by passers-by at night, on one occasion a smashed window, were signs of local hostility to us.'

Several months after Paula was allowed home she was injured yet again playing football with her brothers and sisters. Mr Fisher agreed to leave her in hospital after the doctor warned he would be arrested if he tried to take her home. He said Paula was kept in hospital as 'a virtual prisoner' for 11 weeks.

After four visits, Mrs Fisher persuaded her GP to get a second opinion. Mr Fisher said: 'Paula's 'sexual abuse' was diagnosed as a skin disease. The doctor diagnosed it in five minutes, her vagina was intact, no sign of sexual molestation whatsoever.

'Finally in February 1987, after going to court on a total of 15 occasions, their claim was thrown out. No apology. No sorrow.'

The Westminster study reported that Paula had a nervous breakdown and is still seeing a psychiatrist. She hates doctors and blames her mother for not protecting her. Mr Fisher had a nervous breakdown two years ago.

Paul and Jane Neil (not their real names) live in a small town in the North of England. Mrs Neil had two children aged 15 and 10 from a previous marriage and a baby from her present marriage. Paul was nine months old and apparently healthy until one evening in 1987 when he 'became rapidly and seriously ill with unequivocal evidence of an elevation of pressure within the head', according to the medical report. In hospital, tests were carried out and Paul's parents were accused of causing the condition. The following day the parents were told Paul would develop epilepsy and be a virtual cabbage.

Mrs Neil complained that the doctor who said this was cold and aloof and said there was no chance her son would recover. He made a complete recovery but the physical abuse investigation continued. Paul was placed on the child protection register on the basis of the medical evidence. A social worker told Mrs Neil that if Mr Neil confessed he had shaken Paul, social services would be able to rehabilitate the family and Paul could go home.

The social services sought long-term fostering for Paul with a view to adoption. But at the final High Court hearing, medical evidence was inconsistent. The original medical report and three further medical experts claimed Paul's injury was non-accidental while five others rejected the case against the parents. The judge ruled in favour of the Neil family.

During the investigation, Mr and Mrs Neil were unable to work because of stress, depression and anxiety and afterwards Mrs Neil visited a psychiatrist for 12 months.