Nightmare at the nursery

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Last summer, the sky fell in for Paul Skinner. It was early morning on Saturday, July 27, and the 43-year-old was drinking tea in bed with his wife. Hearing car doors slam, he looked out of the window of his Warwickshire village home and saw several police cars parked in front of his house, with six officers at his front door. The nightmare that followed for the Skinner family is not over yet.

Paul Skinner opened the front door and was informed that he was being arrested for indecently assaulting a pupil at his wife's nursery. He was taken for questioning at a police station in a nearby town. His reaction, he says, was one of bewilderment.

"I didn't know what to say or think. They wouldn't tell me who the pupil was for several hours. I hadn't got a clue."

While he was being interviewed, police searched his home for paedophile pornography and the goose feather with which he was accused of "tickling" a six-year-old's vagina. They found nothing, but took away the pupil registration documents for the nursery. His own children, aged 12 and 17 at the time, were at the house with one of their friends who had stayed overnight. His wife was questioned too. "Her reaction was the same as mine," says Paul. "It was like being told a member of the family had died. There were strong feelings of bereavement."

Paul Skinner had taught English in secondary schools for 18 years before leaving in 1994 to help his wife with her thriving nursery business, catering for child-ren aged from two-and-a-half to seven. The two years that followed, he says, were the happiest of his working life. "Young children are physically tiring," he says, "but it was much less stressful than teaching. Financially it was successful too."

Paul Skinner sits in the living room of his quiet, modern house, stroking the ears of the family's cocker spaniel. The cries of the children playing in the nursery playground - adjacent to the family's house - can be clearly heard. He no longer has anything to do with the business, despite the fact that all charges against him were dropped when the case came to court in April.

Every surface in the neat, pretty living room is covered with cards from well-wishers. Among the framed family photos and potted plants there are views of peaceful horizons and the sun, and messages saying awkwardly that people hope his ordeal will soon be over, that they don't doubt him, that they're thinking of him and his wife. Many are along religious lines, from fellow Catholics. He talks about the support he's had from friends, staff, and parents at the nursery, as well as from other local people. The fact that the nursery has continued to thrive has made life more bearable.

Now, with the case closed, he wants to talk about what happened to him and to warn other teachers. "I think I've been naive," he says. "I didn't know how vulnerable I was to these kinds of allegations. I do feel this happened because I was a man, working with young children. The Pre-School Learning Alliance encourage it, but I'd counsel against it."

But why would a six-year-old make a false accusation? Paul Skinner cannot say with any certainty, but remembers the sequence of events well.

Shortly after he began working there full-time with his wife (and five other staff), the nursery began a Kids' Club for older primary children, who were dropped at school in the mornings and collected in the afternoons.

His accuser was one of these children, who had made it clear that, unlike most of the pupils, she did not enjoy coming to the nursery.

"I asked the girl if she was happy, and she said no. So I told the mother, and the next thing I knew was this accusation," says Paul Skinner. Why did he ask the child if she was happy? "I used to say that to the children. A lot of the parents are personal friends of ours, and it would hurt us if any of the children were unhappy."

In his first police interview, he was offered a solicitor but declined, thinking that the matter would be quickly cleared up. But a zealous police force ensured that the case grew more frightening before it finally collapsed. A week after the initial charge was made, Paul Skinner was asked to go back to the police station for a voluntary interview. "As soon as I walked in, I was re-arrested. They said that two sisters had also complained about me. I was interviewed about them, in the presence of the duty solicitor. "

He believes the sisters' charge was planted in their minds by adults. Using the seized pupil records, police and social workers had tracked and interviewed 109 past and present pupils at the nursery. "They'd been to the sisters and they'd said they loved nursery, liked Mr Skinner and he tickled them sometimes," he says. "In the meantime, the mother kept pestering them about telling the truth, and nice touching and bad touching.Eventually, they said they'd been tickled here, and pointed to their private parts."

It's a difficult conversation to have, but Paul Skinner keeps his dignity.Does he tickle little girls?

Should he? "I denied all charges of tickling them in an indecent way," he says. "I played with the children in exactly the same way as I played with my own. I tend to be quite tactile, and children like me. Obviously, teaching in a secondary school I didn't sit 16-year-old girls on my lap and tickle them. But I played in a physical way with the little ones."

Initially, as a condition of his bail, Paul Skinner was not allowed in his own home (because of its proximity to the nursery) between 7am and 7pm.He spent the days at his parents' house, too afraid to turn on the television or open a newspaper in case he saw his own name. "It was a miserable time," he says. "I wasn't allowed to talk to parents at the nursery. But many of them are our friends; it was a social isolation."

His wife of 23 years - a former infant headteacher - didn't doubt his innocence, and the couple talked to their two children throughout about what was happening. Remarkably, only two families withdrew children from the nursery. One parent attacked him in the street.

"I'd just come out of the building society. He called me a child molester and a bastard, then he knocked me to the ground and started kicking me.

My son was in the car, waiting for me. That was a low point," says Paul Skinner, thoughtfully, still relying on the dog's ears for distraction.

On October 20, 1996 - the date is seared into Paul's memory - bail conditions were relaxed and he was once again able to remain at home during the day. Despite the widespread support, he says he felt like "shutting himself in a cupboard". He stopped going to his local for a drink and would drive 20 miles to get a loaf or go to the bank rather than face people in the village.

Inevitably, he was preoccupied with the case. "I got stronger," he says. "I learned a lot about the techniques used by the social workers and the police, and I was appalled.

Children of three and four were interviewed for an hour at a time, and repeatedly asked, 'Did he tickle you here?' up to a dozen times." One child reportedly put her hand over the social worker's mouth, to stop the persistent questioning.

An energetic solicitor, he says, believed in him from the start. His GP spent time counselling him, as well as prescribing the sleeping pills he took every night for eight months. His marriage has grown stronger, and his Catholic faith and the teaching union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, have, he says, helped him in equal measure.

When the case came to court, the three girls were required to give evidence by a video link. The first gave contradictory responses, the second was "wavering", and the third broke down in tears and couldn't speak.

At the direction of the judge, the first child was ruled an unreliable witness. The parents of the two sisters then decided not to pursue the charges, and the case was dropped.

The local paper gave over its front page to a "nursery boss innocent" story and 60 friends and well-wishers gathered at the Skinners' house for a low-key gathering, in a spirit more of relief than celebration.

But such charges, once made, cannot be forgotten. Paul Skinner is uneasy around young children now, and colder towards even friends' children. He has an aversion to the idea of his son baby-sitting, because he too could be vulnerable. He even told his wife he never wanted grandchildren.

His real anger is reserved for the police and social services. "There is no bitterness in me whatsoever against the children, because they are just children," he says.

"I wasn't bitter about the parents, particularly. But I think the children and their parents have been badly used by the police and social workers."

Backed by the union, he had hoped to take action against the police. In recent days, however, counsel has advised him that malice would be difficult to prove.

Paul Skinner is a neatly-dressed man in a bright green sweater and black jeans. His hobby is gardening, and around the immaculate green lawn behind the house Japanese maple, copper beech and two kinds of horse chestnut toss their leaves in the wind.

His subject is English literature, but he doesn't know what he'll do with the rest of his life. "The clouds are still too low," he says. "There is nothing that I want to do."

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