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The Alleged Abuse

Dawn and Anthony Deren operated a private kindergarten called Seabeach Kindergarten. It was located in Mona Vale, a suburb of Sydney. One of the mothers had observed her daughter behaving strangely. She later told police that, while eating at a restaurant, her daughter had "slipped down off her chair and spread her legs apart; she pushed her chest forward and pulled her arms back, with her head tilted back." She concluded that her daughter had been sexually abused.

The police responded to the mother's complaint by organizing Operation Bubbles. They committed 15,000 staff hours of effort to investigating the case. The total cost to the state for the investigation and trial exceeded $1 million Australian dollars. After extensive interviews, the children disclosed that Anthony had dressed up as a clown, called "Mr. Bubbles." Children described how he had abducted them, took them to a motel, coaxed them into a spa-bath and sexually assaulted them. The disclosures involved also involved violence: stabbing and cutting. 18 children were examined by the Camperdown Children's' Hospital in Sydney. They concluded that at least 5 girls had been sexually abused.

The Derens were charged in 1989 with 54 counts of child abduction and sexual assault. 17 children, aged 3 to 6 were allegedly involved. Two of their teachers, Louise Bugg and Rima Muir, were also charged.

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How the Case Gradual Unwound

The case generated great controversy. A probationary constable who lacked experience in child interviewing performed much of the questioning of the children. The Police Department's Child Abuse Unit was unstaffed at the time and thus could not supply guidance. The defense attorneys asserted that the parents whose children were at the kindergarten had formed a network for exchanging rumors, and that this caused many parents to believe that their children had been assaulted. The defense also believed that children had created elaborate fantasy worlds as a result of repeated questioning by the police.

During the trial, the defense's expert witness, Dr. Ralph Underwager expressed concern about the effects that the police questioning had upon the children. He said during the trial:

"By the process they have put them through, the authorities have taught three to five year olds about deviant sexual behavior of the most gross and irresponsible sort - and at a time when they have no ability to know what is proper behavior...They have been taught to associate violence, stabbing, cutting with sexuality and the effect is worse than if they had been abused."
In 1989-OCT, the judge, David Hyde, ruled that the children's evidence was inadmissible because of excessive interference from adults, chiefly parents and police officers. He said:
"I am satisfied that the children, due to their stage of cognitive development, and other factors, are not of sufficient intelligence to justify the reception of evidence from them...It would be impossible for remove the layers upon layers which have been placed upon the child's memory. I accept that contamination has occurred."
This would appear to be a strange choice of words by the judge: no one questioned the children's intelligence level, only the likelihood that their abuse memories were implanted by adults. The Director of Public Prosecutions was ordered by the judge to withdraw all of the charges against the Derens and their employees.

An interesting development occurred after the trial ended. Anthony Deren allegedly admitted during a TV interview that he had been charged several years earlier with the sexual assault of two young girls in a swimming pool. Another odd twist is that Anthony, a Fundamentalist Christian, allegedly believes that Satan had invaded the bodies of the investigators, and that he was involved in a religious battle with the forces of evil. This is sometimes referred to by conservative Christians as spiritual warfare. The media was generally sympathetic to the accused, but there were many newspaper articles which included some really shoddy reporting and misinformation.

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Were Children Actually Abused at Seabeach?

The truth of abuse at the Seabeach Kindergarten will never be known. Some difficulties with the case are:
bullet The Children's' Hospital Sydney checked 18 students, both girls and boys. They concluded that at least 5 girls had been sexually abused. There is a problem with this finding. During the 1980's, many children were falsely identified as sodomy victims as a result of anal winking and anal dilation tests. Girls were falsely identified as being victims of vaginal rape on the basis of hymen irregularities. Unfortunately, it was only in the late 1980's that researchers applied these examination techniques to non-abused children and found out that the tests were without value. Irregularities were found in both non-abused and abused children. It is not known whether the 18 students in this case were examined using what was then the latest, just released research knowledge. If the physicians applied the old tests and criteria then there is every likelihood that none of the children were actually victims of sexual abuse. Physicians might well find 5 students who "failed" the old tests out of any randomly selected group of 18 young children.
bullet With unskilled, repetitive and probably direct questioning by the police, the children's memories are generally quite unreliable. (3,4)
bullet One can be certain that the children's stories of stabbing and cutting have no validity because no physical evidence of injury was found.
bullet The likelihood of Anthony Deren transporting children to a motel seems slight. Suspicions would have been raised among the motel staff when he turned up with different children in the middle of the day on a repetitive basis. As with other suspected multiple victim multiple offender (MVMO) abuse cases in pre-school centers, transporting children off site would be fraught with difficulties. Parents come and go at all times during the day and would have noticed if their children were missing.
bullet The likelihood of the Darens recruiting two female child abusers as employees seems remote.
On the other hand, some of the children might have been abused. With Anthony Deren's admitted past history of abusing two pre-teens, he would be a likely suspect for police investigation. One thing is definitely known: the children will now grow up with horrendous memories of sadistic sexual abuse. If they were actually sexually abused, then the system failed them. If they were not abused, then they certainly have been seriously injured emotionally by the system. As in all of these cases, it is the children who bear much of the pain.

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  1. S.E. Hatty, "Of Nightmares and Sexual Monsters: Struggles Around Child Abuse in Australia", International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, (1991), Vol. 14, P. 255-267
  3. SJ Ceci & M. Bruck, Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony, American Psychological Association
  4. Stephen J Ceci, "Cognitive and Social Factors in Children's Testimony, Master Lecture, American Psychological Assoc., Toronto, 1993-AUG-20

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