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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 

The desperately awful case of Poppi Worthington.


The perpetrators of sexual abuse are inadequate individuals who control weaker people, often children, for their own gratification. Their behaviour is always an abuse of power and usually a breach of trust. They destroy families and blight childhoods. They create dread in their victims by convincing them that the consequences of speaking out will be worse than the consequences of silence. They create guilt in their victims by persuading them that they have somehow willingly participated in their own abuse. They burden their victims with secrets. They poison normal relationships, trade on feelings of affection, drive a wedge between their victims and others, and make family and friends take sides. They count on the failure or inability of responsible adults, both relatives and professionals, to protect and support the victims. Faced with exposure, they commonly turn on their victims, try to assassinate their characters, and get others to do the same. Most often, their selfishness is so deep-rooted that they ignore other people's feelings and are only capable of feeling pity for themselves.

So opens the judgement of Mr Justice Peter Jackson in the case of Wigan Council and M, Mr C, Mr P, GM, G, B and CC.  The rest of the ruling continues in a similar vein of perspicacity, acute in its legal reasoning, angry at what G and B, abused for years by their stepfather Mr C, put them through, and the failure of the authorities to do anything about it.  Indeed, despite Jackson's judgement, no criminal proceedings have been brought against Mr C.  It is essentially a case of the word of G and B, whom Jackson describes as "impressive witnesses", giving "compelling" accounts with "no hint of malice", against that of their self-admitted "habitual, deliberate" liar step-father, who made a "thoroughly unimpressive witness".

If there was any coverage of the case beyond the local area, I failed to notice it.  There almost certainly wasn't.  Media coverage requires names, known names preferably.  Some cases are so terrible, or treated as such that they do make waves: Victoria Climbie, Baby P, perhaps the exception the proves the rule.  At other times, pure chance seems to come into play.

Such as seems to be the case with Poppi Worthington.  The true reason as to why the case of her death suddenly made the headlines yesterday is as much to do with the media itself as the facts involved.  Following the issuing of new guidelines on transparency in family courts back in January 2014, a consortium of media organisations challenged Cumbria County Council's request for strict reporting restrictions.  Yesterday's judgement marks the conclusion of the court process, following Poppi's father's challenge to the initial ruling.

That the Worthington case is especially upsetting and distressing does not seem to be the reason for the coverage.  If anything, and quite understandably considering the exact details involved, most of the reporting has skirted around precisely what happened to her.  Most reports only mention a "sexual assault", and leave it at that, with some also hinting towards bleeding.  Along with how it seemed odd that I hadn't heard anything about this case before, it was the mention of how three medical experts apparently disagreed that Poppi had been sexually assaulted, and yet the judge had still ruled that she was, that made me look up on the judgement on Bailii.

Which is of course something anyone can do, and yet also seems to have not been done by some of those who have commented publicly on the case.  Sir Simon Hughes for instance, and Yvette Cooper, to judge by their remarks, in Cooper's case in the House of Commons.  Anyone who has read Mr Justice Peter Jackson's judgement will soon see why there is not the slightest chance of a second police investigation into the circumstances of Poppi Worthington's death, and also why there would be no point in such an investigation.

The details of failings and mistakes in the immediate aftermath of Poppi's sudden death are sadly all too familiar.  On the balance of probabilities, as is the legal standard in the family court, Jackson finds that Poppi was the victim of a penetrative anal assault by her father, Paul Worthington.  While almost everything else in the case is either disputed or would be unable to be proved beyond reasonable doubt, the legal standard in the criminal court, it is uncontested that Poppi was bleeding from the bottom when she was found unconscious.  No one, including Poppi's father legal team, has been able to come up with an alternative explanation as to how she came to be bleeding from the bottom, even while disputing that the injuries themselves were caused by sexual assault.

The inability to prove Worthington definitively assaulted his daughter is in part down to said failings.  The gloves the answering paramedic was wearing when he carried Poppi to the ambulance were thrown away.  The sheet Poppi was laid on in the ambulance, which the paramedic noticed had blood and faeces on after she was taken into the hospital, was discarded.  The nappy Poppi had been wearing at the time she stopped breathing was thrown away by a relative and unable to be found, something done in front of a police officer and after the injuries to Poppi were known about.  Paul Worthington was not questioned and did not have his penis swabbed until at least 5 hours after the details of Poppi's injuries had become clear, by which time he had urinated at least once.  Before she carried out the post-mortem, referring to fractures already found in Poppi's right leg, the pathologist Dr Armour suggested to the police officers who were briefing her that she believed this was a case of child abuse.  This it seems was taken to be a "rash statement", and when Dr Armour subsequently phoned their superior officer DCI F with her initial findings, he refused to authorise forensic tests of the samples or items taken, with the exception of the father's blood.  Dr Armour did not complete a final report until 6 months after the post-mortem, with the reasoning in a case of this seriousness she wanted to have all the histology results before committing herself.  It was a further two months until the police instructed for the forensic tests to go ahead.  While DNA from Poppi was found to have been on the shaft of her father's penis, there was none on the glans or where the tip and the shaft join.  Nor was any blood or faecal matter found, as would be expected, if not inevitable.  Nor was any semen found on or in Poppi, or on the sheet from her cot.  Dr Armour's conclusions on the injuries caused to Poppi's rectum were and are heavily disputed: while all the doctors and experts involved in both the first and second hearing see what the other is describing, they disagree significantly on how to interpret the findings, and on whether they are a result of penetration.

Failing the second inquest reaching radically different conclusions to the first, unlikely when there is further dispute over the injuries to Poppi's pharynx/oesophagus and nasal bleeding, the chances of Worthington facing any sort of trial are basically nil.  The evidence needed to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt simply isn't there.  Put it this way: if Simon Harwood was found not guilty when there was video evidence of him pushing over Ian Tomlinson, in a case where the medical evidence was similarly disputed, in a case where there is nothing other than that disputed medical evidence there is no case.  Mr Justice Peter Jackson accepts as much in his ruling, referring to his previous cases such as the one related in the opening, where criminal charges have either not been brought, or have and dismissed by a jury as to the differences between family and criminal court.

On occasion the CPS gets decisions wrong.  It operates on the margins, as Matthew Scott notes in his piece on the Henriques Report into what were reported as the missed opportunities to prosecute Lord Janner.  Evidence that was regarded as weak can in hindsight look to have been worth testing in court.  When the evidence (or lack of it) is available for anyone who wants to see it though, and still politicians pontificate, they should be called on it.

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