Out of the mouths of bairns: When children revealed they had been abused at nursery school, parents on a Tyneside estate united to obtain evidence. Beatrix Campbell reports

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THE FIRST man to be convicted for sexually abusing children in nursery school was jailed for seven years on Wednesday. It was the complaints of four-year-old children that exposed a secret world in which bribery, threats, tricks and treats established, within a few weeks, an environment in which they could be exploited.

Twenty-one-year-old Jason Dabbs induced fear or love - or both - and used old-fashioned school discipline and punishment to transform the classroom into a theatre of abuse.

Some 64 children - almost all the rising-fives in two Tyneside nursery schools - have made allegations to the police against Dabbs, a former Territorial Army volunteer. These young witnesses have taught their educators how one man can take control of an institution and exploit an entire community of children in its care. Dabbs was among the first intake of men training at Newcastle College to be nursery nurses and his case raises questions about giving men equal opportunities in child care jobs.

Dabbs targeted two nursery classes: one in a middle-class suburb in north Newcastle, the other in the east end, in a working-class council estate that echoes with the sound of children, and a sense of security.

The discovery began with a child from the east end who told her father 'big Jason puts his fingers up my fairy'. She would say no more. This was in July 1992. The next day the father told the school. Impossible, they said. The man was never alone with the children. Distressed at not being believed, the girl's parents rigged up a baby alarm to record another conversation and took their worries to other professionals.

They told their doctor, who told social services, who told the police, who told the school. On 10 July, Dabbs was suspended. Interviewed by police a week later, he denied everything. Before the school term ended there were more allegations by children and admissions by Dabbs to the police.

One child said Dabbs had 'put his fingers in my tooshie'; she told when, where and how he abused her, what she was wearing, and who else was there. Her mother was amazed. 'I asked her why she hadn't told us. She said Jason had told her she would go to prison.' This child alerted the adults to one of his instruments of control. 'Jason gave her two pens from the teacher's desk. Next day he said she'd stolen them and would go to prison.' The pens were still at home, in a drawer, buried under the child's nighties. 'To this day she still thinks she could go to prison. She began throwing tantrums. She began saying 'I'm sorry, Mammy' all the time and sobbing.' Other parents learnt that Dabbs got children to take pens or Lego, threatenening them the next day with prison for thieving.

The term was drawing to a close and still the school seemed paralysed. Mothers discussed the news in the schoolyard or at the shops. One tried to trace the other families, engaged the help of the nursery teacher, and delivered notes to homes inviting other parents to a meeting. The headmaster refused them the school premises.

One of those invited was a stoical woman who didn't mix much. She recalled how her child had wept bitterly going to nursery. 'I left her there in tears.' Encouraged to ask her child some questions, she got the answer she feared: yes. Telling her story, her face dark with grief, she said: 'I took her to school and she was crying and saying 'I've got a sore foot' or 'I've got a sore head', or 'don't leave me there Mammy'. I carried her into that school every morning because she wouldn't walk in.'

Parents began to realise that their children had been in mutiny for weeks. Staff had constantly consulted parents about their children's sudden symptoms of distress; they had assumed something was wrong at home, not at school.

One mother contacted the head just before the end of term and demanded to know why parents had not been informed about the suspected abuse. 'The head said: 'Because it's only the accusation of a four-year-old'. Excuse me] Only, I said. We're told not to doubt a child. 'This man is innocent until he's proved guilty', he said.' The head also urged her not to question her daughter, because 'what they have to go through is very traumatic'.

So she didn't. But the police enlisted the parents' support in their inquiry and were inundated with calls. When they visited this woman's house they urged her, whatever the head had said, to ask her child about what might have happened. Some soft, strategic questions produced the answer: yes.

'I felt my credibility as a mother totally zoomed. I felt I'd let her down. For weeks she hadn't wanted to go to school, which was unusual. As soon as I put her clothes on for school, as fast she took them off. She came home sobbing. I went to the school and said: 'no way she wants to come, I don't know what's happening'. I'm her mam. I'm supposed to protect her. I failed.'

The parents' network identified several groups of children assigned to Dabbs. Some of them talked readily, some remained silent. It transpired that they had been warned their mothers would die if they told.

It was the girls, largely, who came up with the evidence. Two specialist police officers interviewed more than 60 of the children. 'The girls would go home and tell their mothers about what was going on at school in any case, about the teachers, the hedgehog, the books,' said one officer. 'The boys didn't talk about school. And they were very reluctant to tell us what had happened to them.'

Another officer said: 'It seemed harder for fathers to accept what happened, or even to listen.'

Once the revelations rolled out, parents reviewed Dabbs's weeks at the school since April. 'For five weeks my daughter was coming home with pooh in her pants,' said one mother. 'I asked her what was the matter but she just turned away.' She later told her mother that Dabbs had taken her to the toilet, where he had abused her.

One child gave evidence to the police, and yet, said her mother: 'She became brokenhearted when he was arrested. 'I love him. I don't want him to be locked up in a cage by himself', she said. I told her it was OK to love him - though it killed me to say that. My daughter had not been frightened of him, she had been frightened to speak.' Many said they loved him, including the girl whose revelation to her father first sparked the investigation.

This father was the only man to attend all the meetings organised by the parents that summer, meetings which have continued weekly ever since. 'The other men don't go. They think it's just a load of women talking,' he said. The mothers report that the fathers get angry, want to kill, but won't cope with the crisis of children's nightmares, panic, fury and fear.

'My husband couldn't talk about it. Our bairn doesn't talk to him about it. It kicked a hole in his head, he's in a world of his own with it,' said one mother. Another says: 'My husband will pour his heart out on a Saturday night when he's had a drink. He'll say: 'I want to kill him'. But he won't talk about it.'

The fathers, like the court system, seemed more interested in doing in the defendant than in the children - what they had witnessed, how they would recover. 'I was on my child's side, talking with her and always thinking 'where do we go from here?' My husband was just furious.'

After the revelations by the east end children, Brian Roycroft, social services director for Newcaslte upon Tyne, called the parents in the north together. They did not want to believe the allegations. But as the year drifted by, they heard similar complaints from their children.

Over the past two months it is two girls from this school who have offered some of the most detailed disclosures to the police. They say they were abused more than two Christmases ago and threatened that there would be no Father Christmas if they told.

As well as calling into question the policy of equal opportunities in child care, the Tyneside nursery case has shown how institutions have difficulty confronting their own culpability, and how neighbourhoods cope with child abuse.

The case was a perfect opportunity to test the concept of Partnership With Parents, enshrined in the Children Act. Is it a device to deal with the unease of parents who deny allegations of abuse, or a means of enlisting parents as a resource to support their children? It was introduced primarily in response to the many child abuse cases in which a parent falls under suspicion. In this instance, the parents were undoubtedly innocent and could have been treated as allies by the authorities. Instead, they feel they have been treated like children; they were not integrated into the investigation procedures and have been seen as a problem rather than a resource.

Parents Against Injustice - which has featured so strongly in controversial cases, most recently in Orkney - did not offer support to those parents. Nor did the two schools. The latter are now to be the subject of a public inquiry.

The case has also tested practice in the professional groups. Goodwill has prevailed between police, social services and paediatricians, and the case has vindicated the power of medical evidence, which took such a beating during the 1987 Cleveland case.

Medical signs of 'penetrative trauma' fortified the children's testimony. Some children had refused to speak altogether and broke their silence only when a paediatrician murmured: 'something has hurt you up there, hasn't it?'

The great child abuse crises of the Eighties led to a quest to regulate the conditions in which children speak, which resulted in the the 1992 Memorandum of Good Practice. The Newcastle case could have been a model, showing the reliability of children's evidence and the efficacy of the new regulations governing child witnesses. In the event, these children were given one chance to tell their story to the criminal justice system in front of a video, for less than an hour.

Tyneside thus illuminates the difficulties the memorandum has created for child protection professionals. Children revealed much more as time went on and in the informal conditions of everyday life than in their first, formal interview. The new guidelines, however well intentioned, seem to restrict, rather than facilitate, children's evidence.

The Crown Court's advice to the children

is to forget. But their continuing conversations with their mothers and friends have provided a rare profile of a child abuser's strategy -

his management of his victims, his use of fear, his manipulation of an institution and its

traditions.

Some of the children's parents had themselves been victims of the injunction to forget in their own childhood. They were in an especially difficult position. This was the first chance they had had to process their own past, prompted by what had happened to their children.

The response of the two schools involved was far from exemplary. Neither adopted the teaching programme encouraged by the Department of Health on how to resist abuse. And neither the schools nor the inspectorate followed the approach advocated by the Home Office in the professional's bible, Working Together, which sets out the role of education in protecting children. On the day Jason Dabbs was convicted, the Council for the Curriculum began promoting a morality programme for schools. It did not allude to a child's right to sexual safety.

(Photograph omitted)

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