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Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers
Fighting injustice – lobbying for change
Not So Many Happy Returns
from the ‘in my opinion’ series ….
Having taken early retirement from teaching I was enjoying a varied life style. Responsibilities to the elderly had just ceased and at last there was time to see more of friends and grandchildren. I did some teaching and some voluntary work and had taken up watercolour painting. This settled lifestyle was abruptly shattered on the 3rd June 1998. I remember the phone call, it was quite late ... about half past ten and Robert sounded upset. He told me that he had been arrested early that morning and interviewed about allegations of physical and sexual abuse relating to the time that he owned and ran a care home with education on the premises. (In the "old days" this would have been referred to as an Approved School). He was told that a duty solicitor would be present but on arrival at the police station he was put in a cell as the solicitor had "not arrived". He was very upset about this and incredulous and horrified at the allegations made. He was released on bail. I had no insight into the justice system and reassured him by stating that the police were only doing their job and they would find the truth. Although I was concerned because he was upset, at this point I really did not worry unduly, I assumed that the police always did search for the truth. Living in Wales, Robert was, of course, more aware than I of the problems that staff at various care homes in Wales had faced. He began to make inquiries, contacted Richard Webster and read his book, "The Great Children's Home Panic". He began to worry about the cases he read about and I can remember saying that "We know nothing about those men, we do know about you - you are innocent and you cannot be found guilty of a crime you did not commit, there is no evidence." Such was my belief in the justice system. That August we celebrated our joint 60th birthday at his home, a celebration overshadowed by the charges facing him. Robert's ambition that year had been to take his sea going yacht on a long trip but this dream faded as he became more and more dispirited. Eventually his solicitor was told the police would be making up their minds whether to drop charges or not. It was an enormous strain on everyone, I made a set of curtains on the day he was due to answer bail, anything to occupy my mind. Again bail was renewed and his solicitor suggested that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel. However he was eventually charged. We were all astounded and felt totally helpless. I could not believe that there was any evidence and had not realised that oral evidence was sufficient. We told members of the family and close friends, all of whom were equally horrified. Friends and younger family members immediately wrote to the solicitor supporting Robert. The long slow process of the court system began. We felt helpless as it gathered momentum and all did our best
to support Robert. His barrister's chambers were in Birmingham and I always met him prior to his meetings. He was naturally preoccupied and it was a very tense and exhausting time. Having worked with maladjusted pupils myself, I had no difficulty in believing them capable of lying and tried to assure Robert that their allegations were not a personal betrayal and that any friendly feelings they may have had whilst at the school would have long been forgotten. It seemed particularly ironic that the two most serious complaints came from the first and last pupil to enter the school. Both pupils had been particularly difficult to place and Robert had been willing to give them a last chance to make good. The trial began in late July and ended in early August and I felt relieved that he could now present his story and justice would be done. Despite being inclined to be pessimistic --the family refers to me occasionally as Mrs. Doom and Gloom - I was convinced that he would be acquitted. Indeed instances during the trial contributed to this. The evidence of one complainant was heard by two young men who were waiting for the next trial to begin, I heard them remark, "he's telling f****** lies, he should be punished for that". At the half way stage the judge asked the jury to bring in verdicts of not guilty on all his allegations. This man is still endeavouring to claim compensation! At this stage I heard a member of the press say to his colleague, "If the case collapses let me know". There was a weekend break before the judge summed up and we spent a wearying weekend but were still optimistic. Robert's friends came to "see him acquitted". Words are inadequate to express how we felt when a sudden recall to court led to guilty verdicts on some charges. The horror of visiting him in the cells remains with me to this day.
Our nightmare began.
I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else and the feeling of helplessness was overwhelming. An appeal was prepared and I remained hopeful. At this point Robert was moved to Frankland, Durham, which meant that his barrister was unable to visit. We then heard that the appeal had not been allowed by the first judge. A meeting with the barrister was arranged and he remarked that the first judge was "not a criminal lawyer". It was the beginning of the realisation that justice was a lottery and that although the barrister had re-asserted his belief in Robert's innocence the system was unable to help. I was reminded of the words of the junior barrister who had remarked, "If I had allegations like that made against me I would leave the country, that's what I think of the criminal justice system." Christmas that year was a dreadful time. I sent Robert a book as a gift and was astounded when he was not allowed to receive it. At this point Robert's wife Sandra contacted A.A.F.A.A. And B.F.M.S. and F.A.C.T. North Wales. Sandra courageously went on to lobby at the trial of Dave Jones and there met others equally concerned about the justice system. These early contacts were instrumental in uplifting our spirits. I then joined Sandra at the first F.A.C.T. meeting on 8th April 2000 and although I had gone with some trepidation, I left feeling part of a group committed to seeking justice for all the men wrongfully convicted. Mark Barlow's [a Barrister] words made a deep impression, especially his directive that we had the ability to challenge, argue and petition, and those affected by the law can change the law. Following this meeting I went on to make contact with Harry and Gail. Gail and I maintained a lively correspondence by e-mail, this was and is an enormous help. Gradually we felt less alone. We decided to contact all friends and supporters and call our group Friends of ROB and endeavour to draw attention to Robert's plight. The early F.A.C.T. meetings were particularly important in that they made sense of the situation and contact with others in a similar situation was supportive. All F.A.C.T. meetings have been well organised and the speakers excellent. We left each with spirits uplifted and feeling hopeful. We owe
particular thanks to Phil for arranging for Bill Thompson to speak on Robert's case, a milestone for us and a real boost for Friends of ROB Where time and distance have allowed, I joined in lobbying and also attended the U.C.A.F.A.A. meetings and conferences. The speech by Earl Howe at this year's conference [Nov. 2002] indicated how much progress had been made. It was particularly poignant for me to see the inscription on the arch in the Conway Hall, London
"This above all: to thine own selfe true" (And it must follow as the night the day, ' Thou canst not then be false to any man).
This was regularly quoted to us as children by my mother. Despite all these efforts Robert is still in prison. I keep in contact by letter and visit once a month. Visits have not always been easy, in the early days pent up emotions created tension. Sandra has made that long journey to Durham each and every week since his conviction. Last summer Robert was rushed to hospital with heart problems triggered I am sure by the stress of his situation. I have tried to live day by day and think positively. I know that another challenge awaits us when Robert is released. I admire the way he has coped so well retaining his wonderful sense of humour but am conscious that the experience will leave its mark. Recently I was in a shopping centre and saw a distressed child looking for his parents. Where once I would have instinctively gone to his aid 1 waited and watched, his parents appeared. I was left to dwell on the person I had become, distrustful of others, unable to follow my natural instincts. I realise that Robert's experience leaves us all changed. However, our love for Robert has never changed and family ties are stronger for the experience we have been through. One of my presents at Christmas was "A Prison Diary" by Jeffrey Archer. On the first page I was interested to see the poem "INVICTUS" the last two lines of which I often quote to Robert. I think it is particularly applicable to all those protesting their innocence.
Out of the night that covers me Black as the Pit from pole to pole I thank whatever gods maybe For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the horror of the shade And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate How charged with punishment the scroll I am the Master of my fate I am the Captain of my soul. William Ernest Henley
Footnote: Robert has now been released from prison.Some details have been changed to preserve confidentiality
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