Mud sticks: new study into ‘living hell’ of the wrongly accused
Teachers and carers wrongly accused of abuse have become ‘a new and growing class of victims’ and were being left in a ‘living hell’ with lives and relationships ‘wrecked’, according to a new study. The research from Oxford University’s Centre for Criminology drew on 30 in-depth interviews with victims of false accusations and their families.
Most of those interviewed reported ‘high anxiety levels, severe depression, ill health and associated symptoms of trauma’. ‘The effects of false allegations were felt by their partners and children too, with anxiety and depression experienced by many family members, in addition to consequential financial burdens,’ the report said. ‘The stigma of a false allegation is felt by the whole family and can lead to family breakdown, or permanently damage the relationship.’
Most of the interviewees managed to refute the accusations made against them early on in the legal process. ‘Despite this, their lives were, to put it simply, wrecked,’ the report said.
The experiences described in the report are far from rare. According to a 2015 survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers of 685 members, more than one fifth (22%) of school and college staff had been the subject of a false allegation of abuse by a pupil.
The interviewees, all members of the support group FACT (Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers), claimed to be wrongly accused of abuse in their workplace. All were considered innocent by the criminal system. The group comprised 14 people who had not gone on to be charged with the alleged abuse; 15 who were charged but acquitted; and one person who had their conviction overturned on appeal (not on procedural grounds). All but six of the participants were men and most were teachers.
The researchers – Carolyn Hoyle, Naomi-Ellen Speechley and Ros Burnett – begin their report by reflecting that it might ‘seem perverse to shine a spotlight on the wrongly accused’ in the context of a widespread recognition that it took courage for the victims of abuse to report crimes. ‘However, hearing about the experiences of those who are falsely accused does not diminish lessons that can be learnt from victims of abuse,’ they wrote.
The experience of being falsely accused led to, in the words of the researchers, ‘enduring trauma’ even for those who were not arrested. They pointed out that those accused but not convicted of most crimes kept hold of their jobs, but not those accused of abuse in the workplace.
Most of the participants lost their jobs or faced ‘impassable barriers against working with children or vulnerable adults again’. ‘Mechanisms to check the reliability of potential employees who wish to work with vulnerable populations – such as CRB or DBS checks – can exclude those who have fallen under a cloud of suspicion even if they are not found guilty of any criminal offence,’ the researchers noted.
The research considers the impact on mental health of allegations. ‘Some of our participants had to abandon care work, teaching, friendships and other working relationships spanning decades, resulting in social withdrawal, panic, fear, anxiety and a complete inability to trust others, with the inevitable costs on mental health,’ the report said.
‘The stigma of the label ‘paedophile’ was a recurring theme in our participants’ accounts. It was made clear that the stigma associated with child sexual abuse is so great that they felt it a long time after they had been declared legally innocent. For such cases, mud really does stick.’
Carolyn Hoyle, Naomi-Ellen Speechley and Ros Burnett
Trauma was exacerbated by the prospect of yet more baseless allegations. ‘Being wrongly accused of murder or robbery is a deeply unpleasant experience – but not so likely to be repeated once the status of the wrongly accused has returned to “legally innocent”,’ the report said. ‘Conversely, our participants, working with vulnerable and often troubled youths and adults, who may well have been abused in other contexts or by other people, were exposed to risk of further allegations that would be equally difficult to challenge. They had, in other words, rational concerns.’
‘He felt stunned, and became anxious, in a panic if he heard a car on the gravel causing flashbacks to his arrest when the police raided his home… . His sleep deteriorated and he would wake up in the middle of the night. He was not able to get back to sleep and he was becoming depressed… . At times he wishes he was dead. His death would be a release from what he feels is a prolonged mental torture. It seems it will never end.’
The authors argued that their study might provide a ‘corrective’ to the ‘somewhat uncritical discourse that has dominated media, political and policy-making discourse over the past 20 years’ – i.e., that victims will, almost invariably, be telling the truth. They quoted the Metropolitan Police statement on Operation Midland: ‘Our starting point with allegations of child sexual abuse is to believe the victim until we identify reasonable cause to believe otherwise.’
‘No doubt the intentions behind that statement were honourable,’ the authors said. ‘… But this study suggests that in the process, a whole new and growing class of victims is being created, whose suffering is intense –all the more so for having been, until now, largely ignored. The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions. Unfortunately, that is where the victims of false allegations of abuse are likely to find themselves –in a living hell.’
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award