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Sydney Morning Herald

Boys used child-protection lessons to frame their stepfather as a sex abuser

Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, Australia, By Leonie Lamont, February 4, 2004

An 11-year-old boy who hated his stepfather used information learned during child-protection lessons at school to accuse the man of sexually abusing him and enlisted his younger brother to tell a similar story.

In the District Court yesterday, Judge Harvey Cooper awarded damages to the stepfather in a rare case of malicious prosecution.

He said that while children had to be protected "those innocent of such allegations should likewise be protected".

Judge Cooper criticised the joint police and Department of Community Services team of the Child Protection Enforcement Agency. In the investigation of the allegations against the man, from south-western Sydney, "fairness gave way to zealotry and proper methods of impartial investigation designed to ascertain the truth gave way to badgering designed to obtain information to support the preconceived belief that such allegations are true".

He said the charges went ahead, even though the younger boy, then nine, recanted and agreed he had told lies to help his brother. There had also been "compelling evidence" from family members that the abuse could not have occurred when it was alleged to have happened.

Judge Cooper said the investigating officer, Detective Constable John Floros, "succumbed to the pressure from senior officers in the Child Protection Enforcement Agency" to lay charges because the stepfather was a civilian employee of the police service.

In the case of the older boy, the judge said he was satisfied on the balance of probabilities that it was a proper case to bring to court, notwithstanding the "countervailing evidence".

"Armed with the knowledge gained from the lessons, books and CDs provided by his school, [the elder boy] was able to make this very serious complaint with some degree of plausibility," Judge Cooper said.

But the malicious prosecution case had been made regarding the younger boy, the judge found. He said Detective Floros could not have believed the stepfather committed the offence.

The stepfather was awarded $31,000 in damages for the stresses which occurred during the nine weeks between being charged and the DPP taking over the case. When the case was heard months later, a magistrate found a jury was unlikely to convict on the evidence and dismissed the charges.

Meanwhile, the two boys were made wards of the state. The younger boy returned home after threatening to kill himself while in foster care, and the elder boy also ran away from foster care and returned home, without court approval.

Judge Cooper heard the stepfather now lived in a granny flat in the backyard, fearful the boy would make an unfounded sexual abuse allegation against him. His wife, stepchildren and his own children in the marriage live in the family home.