Azzopardi never had a chance

Revisiting the Nicholas Azzopardi casefile.

On 1 February 2008 Nicholas Azzopardi asked the civil court to decide where his daughter and son should reside as he felt his wife Claudette was not looking after them properly and he did not want his children exposed any more to the serious marital problems he was having with his wife. He asked the court to decide in the best interests of the children.

On 5 February 2008 Claudette Azzopardi is notified by the court about Nicholas' request so that she could reply to it. She does not reply.

Instead, on 14 February 2008, she calls Appogg and requests an urgent meeting but she does not turn up for the appointment.

On 15 February 2008 the court appoints Dr Stephanie Galea as the children's lawyer to draw up a report to recommend where the children should reside.

On the same day Claudette, accompanied by her mother Antonia Patiniott, tells the Child Protection Services that she suspects that her husband Nicholas is sexually abusing their six and half year daughter. She had already spoken to Superintendent Alexandra Mamo about her suspicion. Mamo tells CPS about Claudette's suspicion and, just by looking into her eyes she convinces her "that the daughter has a whole story to tell". Antonia tells Appogg that Nicholas unfairly blames her daughter for everything. She says that her granddaughter has told her that her father abuses her and she says that she is concerned that she might be the victim of sexual abuse.

On 18 February 2008, Claudette calls 179 saying that she suspects that Nicholas is sexually abusing their daughter. Claudette, accompanied by her mother Antonia, brings the daughter to Appogg. Antonia tells Appogg that she is sure that something is going on and that her granddaughter is "not inventing these things". Appogg talks to the daughter but she is very inconsistent and contradictory in what she says.

On 21 February 2008 the Fgura Primary School informs Appogg that the daughter has been very stable and attended school regularly but that now all of a sudden she had regressed to how she used to behave when she was in kindergarten and was being violent with young boys. They take this as a sign of sexual abuse without considering that the daughter was reacting to the difficult situation she was in (living with an autistic younger brother who bit her and threw things at her - she was terrified of him).

Claudette is very reluctant to sign the consent form for the police to investigate her husband Nicholas, as she can only "suspect" that Nicholas abuses their daughter. But her mother Antonia tells her that the abuse should stop and that she is doing this for her daughter.

On 22 February 2008, Claudette agrees to sign the consent form so that the police are informed about the allegations against Nicholas and are asked to investigate them.

On 26 February 2008, Dr Stephanie Galea, after meeting the daughter on her own, submits her report to the court saying that there are serious marital problems between Claudette and Nicholas and that the daughter already spends a lot of her time with Nicholas's parents to get away from the difficult situation at home. Dr Galea recommends that the daughter's wishes are met. The daughter says she prefers to live with her paternal grandparents as they provide her with a safe and happy environment. On 28 February 2008, the court agrees with Dr Galea's recommendation and orders that the daughter lives at her paternal grandparents.

When Dr Stephanie Galea met the daughter on her own and asked her about her father, mother, brother and situation at home, she did not say anything about being abused by her father. Before Nicholas Azzopardi asked the court to rule on where the children should reside, no allegations of sexual abuse were ever made against him, either to the police or to the child protection services. His wife had reported him to the police on several occasions but had never alleged that he sexually abused their daughter.

But on the basis of two inconclusive Appogg/police meetings with the daughter and without investigating and verifying properly the allegations of abuse against Nicholas, and without having a forensic psychologist meet the girl and without carrying out a medical examination on the child (as even penetration had been alleged), the police decided that they had enough proof to arrest Nicholas Azzopardi and charge him with the sexual abuse of his daughter.

Experts on child abuse claim that there aren't many convincing reasons as to why a child would accuse a parent of sexual abuse when it never happened.

But there is one explanation that does fit - and it also accounts for the majority of false allegations of sexual abuse made against a parent. Children will lie about being sexually abused if they have been coached or pressured to make such disclosures.

In these cases, the coaching is usually done during the course of a custody dispute. While the coaching or coercion can be done subtly and systematically, it can also carry with it an implied threat. Regardless of the method of coaching, the primary motivation for the 'accusing' relatives is their desire to limit or eliminate the children's contact with their other parent.

What better way to destroy a relationship between parent and child and also to ensure sole custody for the accusing parent - all at the same time with one allegation of sexual abuse! When the allegations of child abuse occur within the context of marital strife or as a catalyst to a custody dispute, the police and child protection services are advised to proceed cautiously and carry out a thorough investigation before they give credence to the allegations.

A careful analysis of the police and child protection service files on the case of the allegations against Nicholas Azzopardi shows that both police and child protection services were advised to verify the allegations carefully, as both parents were accusing each other of either physically or sexually abusing their daughter. Both ignored this advice and decided early to find Nicholas guilty without proper professional investigations. In the hurried and superficial process they only selected the 'evidence' that fitted their bias and discarded all the other facts.

Some of the people involved in the case, including his wife Claudette, a social worker and a police inspector, were very hesitant to proceed without sound evidence but ultimately, those who wanted to nail Nicholas prevailed.

He did not have the opportunity to clear his name in court as the case against him was dropped after he died in hospital following an incident where he ended up at the bottom of the bastion at the back of Police HQ. The police say Nicholas jumped to escape, while on his death bed he said that he had been beaten up and thrown over the wall.

Evarist Bartolo is shadow minister for education.

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