Bureaucratic punishment

– When public servants act as judge and jury.

Michael is a typical Aussie kid who grew up in Sydney’s beaches. Confident and cheerful, he was vice president of his school, a popular and good-looking boy who’d spent his whole childhood in the surf. By 18 he was a qualified beach lifeguard. That’s all he’d ever wanted to be.

But then, in August 2021, came the accusation. Sexual intercourse without consent. He says that the girl had boasted to friends beforehand that she planned to have sex with him at the party. That she was the one who initiated things, dragging him off to another room where they started making out. But he stopped when she looked distressed after someone barged in on them.

Her story was totally different. She claimed he’d beaten her up and forced her to have sex against her will.

Her allegations were enough to have him charged and sent to jail for a couple of nights before being let out on strict bail conditions, never to leave home without a parent present, nighttime curfews and so on.

For well over a year the whole family was under siege, as the parents struggled to raise funds for expensive barristers and Michael’s distressed siblings supported their frightened brother who spent desperate month after month alone in his room. Mum and dad worried themselves sick about his emotional welfare.

Eighteen months later it all culminated in a gruelling 6-week court case, resulting in a unanimous verdict of not guilty. It was revealed in court that his accuser had lied consistently to the court and to police. Naturally, she got off scot-free.

But it didn’t end there for this family. Despite the not guilty verdict, Michael discovered there was a whole new phase of punishment about to kick in. Bureaucratic punishment.

Even though the lifesaving organisation had kept his position open, for Michael to resume work he needed his “WWCC”- a working with children check which had been cancelled 4 days after he had been arrested.

It turned out that the bureaucrats who administer the WWCC – from the Office of Children’s Guardian – set themselves up as another judge and jury. They take it upon themselves to decide if this young man should be kept away from children.

Michael plunged into despair as this mob put him through a series of phone interviews, questioning him, interviewing him again and again. For month after month, they left him hanging as they went through the motions, whilst the  deadline for resuming his beloved job slipped away.

In stepped Michael’s dad, a professional man well versed in bureaucratese, who knew just how to placate the officer in charge, grovelling to her every whim, digging out court transcripts, the testimonials, references, detailed chronology of events – everything that the apparatchik decided could possibly help their deliberations.

Seven months after the process began, the officer finally rang him to announce Michael would receive the precious certificate. She told him that without his dogged dad Michael most likely would never have received it.

How utterly sickening is that? These anonymous bureaucrats have the power to ruin a kid’s life, even after he was found not guilty in criminal court. It turns out that, more often than not, they choose to never give acquitted men their right to resume their work – as lifeguards, or teachers, paralegals, doctors, you name it. Endless professions in Australia now require anonymous strangers to determine whether these men are safe around children. And they almost always err on the side of caution.

It’s happening everywhere. Ros Burnett is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford and the author of a series of studies on the impact of false allegations of abuse. One study, which involved 30 people (24 males and 6 women) who were investigated but never charged, or charged but then acquitted, found many who “faced impassable barriers against working with children or vulnerable adults ever again.” The study reported that in the UK the Disclosure and Barring System (DSB) consistently excludes people “who have fallen under a cloud of suspicion” even if they are found not guilty of any criminal offence.

The upshot is “damaged reputations and ruined careers. Innocent men and women are left without a career, while institutions lose skilled and caring employees,” report Burnett and her colleagues, mentioning one woman who was forced to step down from a charity she herself had founded after a “safeguarding’’ report “could not rule out all possibility of risk.”

I’ve talked to families whose sons had their careers destroyed, even after an allegation was found to be false in court. Well-qualified young men have been forced to shelve life plans to become a pharmacist, or chiropractor, or paramedic, after authorities refused to issue the required certificate. Of course, publicity which names an alleged perpetrator can further derail such career plans. I once found myself pleading with the editors at a Melbourne newspaper, asking if they could take down the four-year-old news report naming the “sex creep” who’d faced charges in a Victorian magistrate’s court. The creep was a university student who’d been accused of “sexual touching” on an interstate sporting trip. That newspaper report has the potential to put the kibosh on any job opportunity that might arise for this well credentialled young man.

When it comes to bureaucratic punishment, the public servants take it upon themselves to do their bit to safeguard the community from these “predators”, with no apparent consideration of fair treatment for the people concerned.

Five years ago, I tweeted about a newspaper story, commenting on the “poor, sad face” of a teacher shown leaving court after being acquitted of all 13 charges of sexually assaulting three schoolgirls. I suggested he would never recover from this ordeal.

I was so right. Soon after that the teacher, Simon Phillips, contacted me and I have been in touch with him ever since, as he sends occasional updates on ongoing indignities he has suffered. It’s just unconscionable how bureaucrats have made him jump through hoops.

Like the phone call from a case officer from the Office of Children’s Guardian, which came out of the blue sometime after he’d applied for the WWCC. He received the unexpected call whilst sitting on a bus surrounded by people.

As Phillips reports: “She demanded that I explain why I should have the certificate back. Why did the girls make their accusations? What behaviour had I been doing that was wrong? I asked if I could set a time to speak later and in private. The lady said this was my only chance to explain. I received a letter not long after rejecting my application.”

After extensive investigation, the group monitoring misconduct for the Department of Education eventually agreed with the court’s finding but Phillips still can’t get that WWCC, despite using a lawyer for subsequent applications.

Whenever he applies for jobs, he’s asked about the gaps in his employment. “My response has been to produce a well-crafted letter from my solicitor explaining the case and a copy of my clean police record. It’s very common for the interview to end there. I was told numerous times, ‘We wish to not employ someone with such a past.’

He’s tried concealing his past in an attempt to get work, but a google search of his name brings up all the news reports. Two years ago, he was offered a position at a large media company. “I lasted 8 days as I was let go for ‘questionable past behaviour’. They were smart enough not to put this in print. I was sacked via Zoom.”

The only work Phillips has been able to secure involves menial tasks: working as a store cleaner, stock person and now in retail sales. He’s been lucky to find one large employer where a trusted person in management was prepared to vouch for him and they chose to ignore the mud that was still clinging to him. (If anyone is in a position to offer proper employment to this thoroughly nice bloke, I’m happy to pass on your details.)

Accusations against teachers are so prevalent that there’s a UK website set up to help teachers and carers who have faced wrongful accusations – Here’s the link.

I regularly hear from teachers that students openly boast they can get rid of teachers they don’t like by making false accusations. Here’s a comment from a NSW teacher. “Today I was a relief teacher for a teacher who recently resigned. The Year 10 class were open about what they’d done. ‘Yeah, we called him pedo every day. We broke him.’ I asked them why they did that.  A girl replied, ‘He asked me to move to the front of the class. He just wanted to perv on me.’

The teacher who told me this story said the girl was most likely moved because she’s a troublemaker who never stops talking in class, but the bloke would have known he couldn’t win. Either he resigned or she’d set up a complaint about him.

Bureaucratic punishment is controlled not just by the Office of Children’s Guardian, and various education departments. There are endless other bureaucrats lining up to get involved. Like the ombudsmen. There’s a Melbourne doctor who found himself facing sexual assault charges after police misinterpreted a confused statement made by his schizophrenic ex-wife. It took years for police to sort out what had actually happened, but by this time the local ombudsman was doing her best to destroy the doctor’s career, excluding female patients from the doctor’s practice and plastering his name and photographs across the tabloids, even after the police had dropped the charges.

Just as I finished writing this, I heard from a university lecturer who’d been facing sexual assault charges, despite overwhelming evidence that the accusations were false. To his immense relief he heard a few weeks ago the charges were being dropped and costs awarded against the police. But he called me to say that his WWCC certificate has been suspended “pending further investigation” – apparently this is just in case there’s a student in his class who happens to be under 18.

We dangle freedom in front of these people only to snatch away any chance of a return to a normal career or normal life. And once again, the presumption of innocence simply doesn’t matter.

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