Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Eleven years ago, former nursery nurse Dawn Reed was cleared of sex abuse charges. But, she tells Cassandra Jardine, the scars remain.
Dawn Reed has spent many of the past 12 years in hiding – all because of false allegations of sexual abuse and claims that she led a paedophile ring. The hysteria surrounding two nursery nurses in Shieldfield, Newcastle, was the great sexual abuse scandal of the Nineties. Following accusations made by a paediatrician, Dr Camille de San Lazaro, there was a witch hunt similar to those in Rochdale, Nottingham and the Orkneys. “Whenever I am reminded of it, I get flashbacks of absolute panic,” says Reed.
Eleven years ago, she was cleared in court of molesting children and, two years ago, she and her colleague, Chris Lillie, won a libel action clearing their names, at which they were awarded £200,000 apiece – the maximum – by the judge who wanted to make it clear that they were innocent.
Dawn hoped then never to speak of it again, but the results of a General Medical Council hearing this month into the professional conduct of Dr Lazaro have distressed her so deeply that she feels she must respond. Dr Lazaro, a consultant paediatrician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, admitted that her report into allegations of sexual abuse was “overstated, exaggerated and emotive”. At the end of the three-week hearing, the GMC concluded that her conduct fell short of that expected from a registered medical practitioner, but found her not guilty of serious professional misconduct
“Given the devastation Dr Lazaro caused, Chris and I had hoped that the GMC would at least impose some restrictions on her work,” Reed says. “Since they haven’t, any parent who comes in contact with her should know her record.” In 1993, Reed was 22 years old, and enjoying her work at the Shieldfield nursery. But a mother, who had read that a worker at another Newcastle nursery had pleaded guilty to abuse, became concerned about her child. In the panic that ensued, 53 children were subjected to examinations that led to the court case, although charges against Reed and Lillie were dropped for lack of evidence.
None the less, Newcastle City Council held an inquiry and the four-member panel, briefed by Lazaro, concluded in 1998 that paedophile activity of a lurid nature had taken place in nearby flats, with rapists dressed as clowns or animals and so on. The Sun invited readers to ring in if they sighted “these fiends”. Throughout those years, Reed – and Lillie – led the life of the hunted. In prison, on remand for her own safety, she was persecuted. “Someone thrust a lighted cigarette in my face and mop water was thrown in my bath.” She lost her home, her job and her marriage.
At one point, she drove to the top of a cliff and contemplated suicide. “It was awful for my family. Can you imagine what it is like for a mother to see her daughter’s face all over the front page?”
Despite the acquittal, Reed felt unable to apply for a job, so she became a student. She won the prize for student of the year at her university and is now a trainee solicitor. Her experiences have led her to take post-graduate courses in family law and child protection, but she is unsure whether she will work those areas when she qualifies in 2007: “Sometimes, I feel too worn out to fight for others,” she says. Her manner as she talks of this most painful of subjects is calm, but subdued. She has never had therapy. “I feel strength has to come from within,” she says. “When I need to clear my head, there is nothing like a good brisk walk and some fresh air. “Even now, however, she says that unless she gets straight out of bed in the morning, she is tempted to stay there with the covers over her head.
The girl who loved working with children and wanted a family of her own has become a battle-weary woman: “At times, I have to look in the mirror to remind myself that I am only 34.” Trusting others is hard and she avoids other people’s children. “If a child were to hurt themselves when in my care, I couldn’t be sure that the parents wouldn’t have those thoughts about me.” As for having her own: “I don’t have the patience and the inclination. I feel I have lost so many years.”As I have said all along, I never saw or heard of any abuse or anything inappropriate. The case against us both was a complete fantasy.
But for Dr Lazaro, if a child had been at Shieldfield nursery, that was enough. We are talking about a woman who couldn’t tell us what her notes and sketches from 1993 meant, yet the general public believe what doctors tell them, especially doctors in such high authority. Even I did. When I was in prison and reading about the abuse, I thought, ‘If these children have been damaged, who has done it?’ The review panel clearly fell under her spell.”Having suffered so much, she and Lillie eagerly anticipated the recent GMC hearing into the paediatrician’s conduct, even though some aspects of the case worried Reed from the start. “I wasn’t even allowed to instruct my own solicitor.
When you complain to the GMC they choose a solicitor for you. If you don’t accept their choice, you have to pay privately. Is that independent?” Nor were she or Lillie able to appear at the hearing. “Chris was actually on the train down when he was told that his statement had been agreed. I was also told I wasn’t needed at the last minute. I would have preferred to show my face, to sit in the witness box, even if I was told there were no questions for me.”She assumed that the GMC might, if not strike Lazaro off, then at least restrict her activities. At the libel trial, the judge, Mr Justice Eady, had said that “where physical findings were negative or equivocal, Dr Lazaro was prepared to make up the deficiencies by throwing objectivity and scientific rigour to the winds in a highly emotional misrepresentation of the facts”.
Dr Lazaro herself had admitted that some of her work was “inappropriate”, “irresponsible” and “unprofessional”. The GMC concluded that the evidence reached the threshold that would permit them to find her guilty of serious professional misconduct. And yet, they let her off after a colleague, Dr Christopher Hobbs, pleaded that she was overworked and under stress. Such a decision is troubling for those facing charges of sexual and other kinds of child abuse. Unreliable evidence from social workers and doctors often lies behind allegations that turn out to be false. Medical experts often give opinions in court without even having seen the child or carer, using inaccurate hospital records as the basis for conclusions that have a shattering effect on the lives of the accused. Yet it appears that they cannot be held accountable if they can plead tiredness and overwork – even if they are being paid large fees for their expert opinions. This is not a historical problem. I know of dozens of families trying to prove deliberate bias or incompetence against doctors and social workers and, bar police action, this is nearly impossible because the professionals support one another.
Three such cases came to me within just 48 hours of my conversation with Dawn Reed. In one, a father was accused by his ex-wife, after an acrimonious divorce, of abusing his six-year-old daughter. The paediatrician (who has a reputation for “seeing abuse everywhere”) had no photographic records or sketches to produce as evidence, the video of the child disclosing was not (by agreement between the various agencies involved, but not the father) shown to the court and the father had not seen his daughter for 18 months when she was medically examined. And yet, he was held responsible.
The evidence was too weak for criminal proceedings but it was sufficient for a family court to prevent him seeing his daughter and his son. “The court has decided that it is in my daughter’s ‘best interests’ to be brought up without seeing her father as she is a victim of sexual abuse that hasn’t occurred,” he says. He will continue fighting for access to the video evidence and intends to take his case to the GMC.
In the second case, a father, a former nurse, was accused by a babysitter who said his two-year-old daughter had disclosed abuse to her. He was arrested, questioned and released on bail, the girl and her four-year-old brother were placed on the “at risk” register and he was banned from speaking to, seeing or writing to his children. A second opinion, however, found no evidence of abuse. He and his wife have lodged a complaint against the original consultant, but they doubt it will have any effect. “I fear that the report will be written to protect the profession rather than those affected by incompetence,” says the father.
The third case concerns a man who cannot see his daughter because Dr Lazaro has convinced his wife that their daughter had been sexually abused by him. This is despite the opinion of a clinical child psychiatrist who found no such evidence. “Had Dr Lazaro’s practices been revealed earlier on, things might have gone differently,” he says. “Had she been struck off by the GMC, I hoped to reopen the case in the civil courts. Now, I can’t. “Parents and carers are not the only ones to suffer. Children caught up in such cases are subjected to intimate interviews and tests. “The Shieldfield investigations were terrible for the families who took their children along to her [Dr Lazaro] for reassurance that nothing had happened to them,” says Reed, “only to be told they had been abused.”
Until those who indulge in such fantasies are kept in check by proper disciplinary procedures, Reed fears that parents and those who work with children remain vulnerable to wild accusations. “All it takes is for a worried parent or carer – or a parent who is not very keen on a worker or an ex-partner – to get a thought in their head. If the child is then seen by a doctor who sees abuse everywhere, suspicion becomes fact.”