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  • 'Sorry' to man accused of sex abuse
  • By Bettina Arndt
  • Sydney Morning Herald
  • 15/04/2000 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 15 articles in 2001 )
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Thirteen years after accusing a solicitor of sexually abusing his three children, the Department of Community Services has expressed its regret for the damage it caused to the man and his family.

Katoomba lawyer Mr Hal Ginges lost custody of his children and had no contact with them for more than five years as a result of the abuse allegations.

Now the department has admitted in court that its investigation was incomplete and unprofessional and that the conclusions reached by its officers were "not soundly based".

On Monday, the District Court in Sydney awarded a verdict in favour of Mr Ginges, who had sued the NSW Government for compensation for injury suffered as a result of the botched investigation. It is believed the department has paid him damages.

Mr Ginges says he was only able to pursue his claim because his children came back to him.

"Without them I wouldn't have been able to prove the whole thing was nonsense," he told the Herald.

It is the first time the NSW Government has made such an acknowledgment. A South Australian man once received an ex-gratia payment from the State Government for damages resulting from an incompetent investigation leading to sexual abuse allegations.

The allegations against Mr Ginges arose as a result of a notification in March 1987 to the Katoomba office of the then Department of Youth and Community services, now DOCS. The three children, Kieran, then aged 10, and his two sisters aged 8 and 4 had already been subjected to a sexual abuse investigation five weeks earlier when they were taken to Westmead Hospital by their mother, Ms Anne Morris, and her partner, Ms Leslye Chenery.

All three children declared no abuse had taken place, according to a Westmead Sexual Assault Centre social worker's report.

Kieran, now a 23-year-old arts-law student, told the Herald: "I couldn't work out what was the point of all this, but I was adamant in saying nothing had happened to me."The Westmead social workers found no evidence of abuse.

By the time of the department's investigation, Ms Morris had left the children with their father, who had long been their primary carer, to move in with Ms Chenery.

The investigation by department district officers Ms Christine Waterer and Mr Les Cormack described by the department as "brief and urgent" involved a four-hour interview with the two girls.

A leading Sydney child psychiatrist, Dr Brent Waters, reviewed the DOCS files to provide expert evidence for the District Court proceedings. His report described the investigation as "extremely coercive" and unprofessional.

Dr Waters strongly criticised the interviews for containing leading questions and failing to acknowledge the children's emphatic denials that any sexual activity had taken place.

The department's investigation was followed by yet another visit to Westmead, and all three children were medically examined. The Westmead social workers found there was no conclusive evidence to suggest any abuse had taken place. But the next day Mr Cormack confronted Mr Ginges and accused him of being a child abuser.

The department funded the children's move with their mother and partner to Melbourne, saying the children urgently needed "a safe place".

Ultimately, Mr Ginges's contact with his children was limited to supervised access, yet, according to Kieran, the children remained under pressure to say that they had been abused.

"We kept being taken to see people from DOCS and therapists who would further push the allegations and our weakness in not acknowledging them."

Kieran said that he made a decision to give in.

"Finally I decided that for the pressure to be removed I'd simply say something had happened, make something up."

Mr Ginges said Kieran made contact with him in 1992 following encouragement from a foster family he had lived with after leaving his mother's home.

By 1996 all three children were in Sydney, the younger sister with her father and the older with her father's mother. The children are now all very close to their father.

Ms Morris said she was very surprised by the department's decision. Ms Morris, who now lives in Adelaide and deals with child abuse matters for a women's health service, said she believed the DOCS investigation had been handled "extremely professionally and carefully".

The government statement announcing the settlement acknowledged that the department investigation "was not conducted in a complete and professional manner and that the conclusion reached by its officers was not soundly based".

It acknowledged the damage caused by the allegations.

"Following the investigation, Mr Ginges suffered the loss of his close relationship with his children for several years and also suffered at the time publicity adverse to his reputation. The department regrets the damage to Mr Ginges and his family."

Asked to comment, the department issued a statement saying child protection practices used by DOCS had changed significantly since 1987.

"DOCS decided it would not be beneficial to spend weeks in court defending practices which have long since changed and been improved."

The statement said the staff involved in the matter were no longer employed by DOCS. Yet this week Mr Cormack was working at the department's St Marys Service Centre. However, a DOCS spokesperson said Mr Cormack was a consultant to the department.

While expressing satisfaction at the verdict, Mr Ginges, whose work as a solicitor includes family law, voiced concern that sexual abuse allegations were often made vexatiously, and few men had been able to prove they were wrongly accused.

"Through my work as a solicitor, I know men who have lost their children to false allegations who never have the opportunity to rectify the damage done to them."

Kieran, who is studying at UWS Nepean, remains angry at the unprofessional intervention of DOCS and other professionals and the subsequent damage it caused to all their lives.

"It astounds me how these professionals can be so negligent. I find it abhorrent."

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