Thursday, August 28, 2008

Presumed guilty: The loving British stepfather devoted to helping autistic youngsters now fighting to clear his name

Every second Thursday, John Pinnington follows the same, rather bleak routine. After breakfast, he heads to his local JobCentre, where he collects his dole money for the week ahead. It is a paltry sum, a mere fraction of what he used to earn when he was the respected deputy headmaster of an Oxfordshire college for young adults with learning difficulties.

He and his wife Rosie no longer enjoy the comforts of the lifestyle they once led. They have to rely on the goodwill of friends with holiday homes in the UK when they need a break, and can barely afford to keep their neat three-bedroom terrace house in the tranquil Oxfordshire village of Benson. Without his $70,0000-a-year income, they have been forced to resort to selling off various family possessions in order to pay their mortgage.

For John's once-excellent career prospects have been destroyed because of a series of unfounded and spurious indecent assault claims made by three young adults in his care. Despite police investigations into each of the claims, none of the allegations has resulted in criminal charges or conviction but, despite this, they remain on his teaching record - preventing him from securing another job. Earlier this month, John, 59, lost a High Court battle to clear his name, despite the judge admitting the 'serious weaknesses' in the allegations.

In a judgment which will affect thousands of carers in charge of children and young adults in Britain, the judge ruled that future employers should always be made aware of such allegations, however 'weak and unreliable' they were. The case is a test of tough new vetting laws introduced after the infamous murders of two Soham schoolgirls in 2002. The girls' killer, Ian Huntley, had been able to get a job as a school caretaker despite having faced repeated allegations of sex offences involving underage girls.

Since then, all criminal allegations, whether or not they are proven in court, have been entered on suspects' police records and disclosed to employers who request enhanced Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) checks. But John, who says his 'life and livelihood' have been destroyed, describes the judgment as 'political correctness gone mad'. He says social workers and police are so afraid of doubting the word of those with special needs that those caring for them have no recourse if accused of any wrongdoing. The fact that he has the support of numerous ex-colleagues and parents of his former charges, he says, counts for nothing.

John's nightmare began in the summer of 2001, when a 19-year-old man, who had a history of making wild allegations against a number of individuals, including his own father and brother, accused John of having sexually assaulted him a year earlier. But, within a fortnight, he withdrew the allegations. What makes John's case all the more disturbing is that all three of his accusers suffer from autism to such a degree that they are unable to speak.

Their allegations have been extracted using 'Facilitated Communication' (FC), a controversial method which relies on one individual resting his or her hand on the arm of a person with restricted mental or physical capacity, effectively guiding them as they communicate using a keyboard. It is a method that is banned in countries such as the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, after critics warned it is like using a Ouija board - but not in the UK.

In John's case, the person helping take the statement from each of the three men in question wasn't properly trained in FC - indeed, on one occasion he says the 'facilitator' was the mother of an accuser. But the allegations were reported to the police who in turn filed them to the CRB, who put them on his record.

John says: 'In the past seven years, I've made complaints to everyone from Oxford Social Services to the Home Office in a bid to try to reclaim my good name. 'Yet I feel like I've been trying to slay the Hydra - every time I chop off one of its heads, up spring two more. 'I have a huge folder full of letters and cards of support from parents of all the children I've taught over the years, my former colleagues, friends at church, family and neighbours. But really, they are all meaningless. 'They help me at my lowest ebb emotionally, but they can't do anything to save my career - or my reputation.

'My once-clean certificate now contains details of these farcical allegations, simply because the police automatically filed them to the CRB. 'I don't see why police CRB checks should include unsubstantiated abuse allegations if there is not a good reason to believe they are true. 'In my case, the allegations are based on lies and are unfounded, untested and unproven. 'Yet their presence on my CRB, which is a mandatory certificate for anyone who works on a paid or volunteer basis with children or vulnerable adults, is costing me my livelihood. 'This is political correctness gone mad, and the reason why is because there are young adults with learning difficulties involved.

'If a woman cries rape and it is proved to be unfounded, a firm line is taken against her and the man she has accused is exonerated. 'But no one is willing to take a firm line and say 'Look, these individuals are not telling the truth' or 'This individual has a history of compulsive lying' because the individuals in question have learning difficulties. It's as though the word of a person with disabilities cannot be challenged.'

Despite gaining the personal support of Boris Johnson, who until recently was his MP, John hit what appeared to be a final brick wall late last month, when, in a High Court case that could have consequences for thousands of carers working with children and vulnerable adults, he tried - and failed - to challenge the decision by Thames Valley Police automatically to include unproven allegations on his CRB......

As parents of a mentally disabled child, the Pinningtons insist they are wellplaced to understand the need to ensure that vulnerable children and adults are protected. 'Of course the vulnerable must be protected, but there has to be a balance when an accusation is as frail as those against John have been,' adds Rosie. 'Common sense still needs to be applied. 'What is really bizarre is that social services have no problem at all with John caring for Stuart. John has said to them: "If you see me as an abuser, why allow me to care for Stuart?" They can't answer that. But still we can't clear his name.'

The High Court case - which John brought against the police himself and was funded by legal aid - was the couple's last hope of a new start. 'The judge conceded the case against John was weak, but still decided that police had done the right thing in adding the information to his CRB,' says Rosie.' John's only option now is to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights. They hope to hear soon whether this can go ahead.

Despite everything, he wants to continue teaching young people with learning difficulties. He says he won't allow his career to be wrecked by what he sees as the over-reaction of the 'rampant' child protection lobby. 'I've devoted so much of my life to helping these vulnerable young people and I just want the chance to continue to do so,' he says.

'We know of three men who, in light of what has happened to me, have left such jobs, as they are scared. That is a terrible shame for everyone involved. If you are innocent, you have no redress. Can that really be right in a civilised society?'

A spokesman for Thames Valley Police said last night: 'The force has a duty to investigate all such allegations thoroughly and we did so in this case. However, we cannot comment on the decision made by the High Court.'

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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