The DOMINION
Wellington, New Zealand.
Tuesday, 4 December 2001.
Features Story

Give me back my children

Leah Haines talks to a father cut off from his young family after
accusations of sexual abuse

The man we can only refer to as X reckons he has lived life by three simple
rules: do unto others as you would have them do unto you; like the man you
see in the mirror each morning; and don't worry about things you can't do
anything about.

The Rules, he smiles, have helped make this quietly spoken tradesman into a
person he describes as the "nicest man I know".

But when you look at X's story, it is hard to see how he has stuck to any
of them.

Some years ago, with no warning, his ex-wife accused him of sexually
abusing their children. With no evidence that he had, and at a time when
his young children still loved and wanted to see him, he was shut out of
their lives.

He has never been convicted of abuse or even charged  despite police
investigation.

He was never told what horrible things he was supposed to have done to his
children and, since Father's Day many years ago, has never seen his
children again.

Five times he has battled in the Family Court to get access to them. It has
cost him $82,000 and each time he has failed.

In the meantime, his children have almost grown up and certainly grown out
of the tiny faces, frozen in time, that smile out of the last photos he was
allowed, that decorate the walls of his home.

Now, despite the fact that they don't ever want to see him, X's repeated
claims of innocence may have been vindicated.

On November 12, Prue Vincent, the psychologist who worked with his children
for six years, admitted two charges of conduct unbecoming in relation to
the children. It was during sessions with the children that the children
claimed they had been abused.

One of Wellington's most experienced family court psychologists, Ms Vincent
was once the head of Social Welfare's psychologist team, and is considered
a leading expert on child sex abuse.

She has been fined $5000 and censured by the Psychologists Board and, to
X's amazement, allowed to keep practising.

Yet in the opinion of other psychologists and family law experts who have
read the charges, she broke almost every basic rule in the book.

She asked leading questions such as "Did Daddy do such and such?" gave
books about family sex abuse to the children's mother to read to them and,
despite advances in psychology, never questioned that her earlier methods
might have been wrong.

For the six years she was involved with the children, Ms Vincent did not
interview X or observe him with his kids. Instead, the charges state, she
accepted "without question" his ex-wife's testimony while telling X to put
his rebuttals in writing.

Exactly what that all means, what Ms Vincent did wrong according to
contemporary psychological practices, how it may have affected the children
and unreliability to show that X had done anything wrong, filled dozens of
pages.

It makes gripping reading.

But because of a veil of secrecy typical of the Family Court, X's access
hearing judgment, and all evidence presented at the hearing, have been
suppressed.

Not only are those details secret: Ms Vincent's hearing before the
Psychologists Board was also held in private and the names of those it
disciplines are not routinely published.

In fact, had this story never been written, only a handful of people would
have known that Ms Vincent had done anything wrong.

Determined that she "not make a career out of this", X flew to Wellington
to be at the board's hearing in an endeavour to make sure she got struck
off the psychologists' register.

Instead, he was told not to bother  she had pleaded guilty to the charges
days before the hearing and he was not needed.

Furious that she had been allowed to keep practising and describing the
board as "impotent" X turned to The Dominion.

"I know I can't do anything about the fact that I believe she's destroyed
the relationship between myself and my children, but I'd like to be able to
prevent her from, to stop her from, being able to do it to anyone else."

The Psychologists Board confirmed nine members had been struck off the
register for a "serious charge" since 1981.

According to The Dominion's files, two had been struck off since 1995  one
for sexually inappropriate behaviour with a client and the other for fraud.

X considers his case is far worse.

"They're basically burning me at the stake with no evidence. She has robbed
my children of their innocence and of a very good daddy.

"We had a good relationship. I am a good father. My friends have got
absolutely no concerns about me. I get asked to babysit for them. That's a
huge ask, really."

It was just before Peter Ellis was tried on 16 charges of sex abuse against
children at the Christchurch Civic Creche that X's ex-wife first told a
social worker she suspected one of her children had been abused.

The social worker referred her to Prue Vincent. That was in 1993, and the
world was in the grip of a moral panic about ritualistic abuse and
"recovered memory" of past sexual abuse.

On Father's Day that year, X went to pick up his children for their regular
weekend visit and was met instead by his ex-wife, without the children.

"She said that she knew what I had done, that I was the biggest bastard on
the face of their Earth and I was not allowed to see my children again," X
remembers. "Father's day. A bit poetic." Then, when he began fighting for
access in the court, X found Ms Vincent continued to work with the children
in her new role as a Family Court-appointed psychologist.

X considers that a blatant conflict of interest.

The board charged her with not handling the "transition" between the roles
properly.

Now he is convinced his children were never abused, but made up stories in
self-defence, confused and stressed after being subjected to more than a
dozen interviews with Ms Vincent and a psychotherapist.

The former head of the Psychologists Board, Barry Parsonson, would not
discuss Ms Vincent, fearing this would breach suppression orders. However,
asked about the dangers inherent in some of the abstract charges she had
faced, he commented on how "particularly difficult" it was to interview
children under five.

"You have to be so careful," Dr Parsonson stressed. "Even up to the age of
eight and nine, they are so suggestive. The psychologist does not want to
be adding confusion to the information by adding suggestive comments."

Victoria University psychology lecturer Maryanne Garry went further, saying
even adults exposed to the leading questions and number of interviews that
X's children were, could have their memories distorted.

And Dr Parsonson, one of the country's top psychologists, suggests the
Family Court is not beyond reproach in terms of the justice it delivers to
non- custodial parents.

While the criminal court requires evidence that an offence has taken place,
under the Guardianship Act, the Family Court needs only to be satisfied
there is a "real risk to the safety of the child" to exclude a parent from
access.

Even when a custodial parent thinks a child would be unsafe with the other
parent, the court is required to err on the side of caution.

Sometimes, Dr Parsonson says, because of the amount of time it takes for
parents to battle the court for custody, and knowing the effect those
battles have on their children, parents just give up.

Even with the risk X poses now seriously in doubt, X says he has been
prevented from playing any part in his children's lives. Not even to send
them presents.

He says they don't want to know him. He suspects they don't know anything
about him.

Nevertheless, he is angry that no one in the Family Court system is
prepared to help his family reconcile.

"It's too hard. The Family Court doesn't have a system for an innocent
accused man to see his kids."

The bitter irony for X is that if he confessed to abusing his children he
could eventually have access to them, through programmes run by the
criminal justice system.

"I am not guilty and I am not prepared to say I am to have access."

Nor is he interested in aligning himself with angry men's groups which have
been pushing for an opening of the Family Court claiming the system is
sexist and anti-men. The groups have a victim mentality that he hates. But
he is not convinced that the Family Court system, closed to review or
criticism, has it right, either.

Family law expert and dean of law at Otago University, Mark Heneghan, says
X's case is a prime example of why the Family Court should be opened to
public and media scrutiny.

"I feel if nothing is done, then these bloody issues will keep coming up."

X's case should fuel the call for a judicial review of the Family Court,
Professor Heneghan says.

Until it does, he believes defence lawyers should and probably would object
to Ms Vincent attending any case they are involved in. "Any case,"
Professor Heneghan stressed. "Let alone sex abuse."

Meanwhile, X flew back to his new wife, a surprisingly happy life and a
house full of Christmas and birthday presents that he has wrapped for his
children every year.

"I want them to know one day that I do love them and that I cared about
them and thought about them," he says, fighting tears for the first time in
the interview.

And if X's children do ever want to get to know him, if, once they turn 16,
they ever knock on his door wondering who their father is, he wants them to
find a good, happy, together man.

"A well-liked man," he smiles, "who's got lots of friends, because I have .
. . That's one of the reasons why I've got on with things  I don't want
them to find a snivelling wreck when they knock at the door. I want them to
find me."