Britain’s Fritzl: The Missed Chances

The Sheffield man who repeatedly raped his two daughters escaped detection for decades. But how could the authorities have missed so many signs of incest? By Cole Moreton and Ian Griggs

There was no dungeon. The man who raped his daughters and fathered nine babies with them has often been compared to Josef Fritzl since he was given 25 life sentences at Sheffield Crown Court. The inhumanity of someone who would do that to his own children, over several decades, is likened to the Austrian who kept half his family locked in the basement and abused them. But the 56-year-old man in Sheffield, who cannot be named for legal reasons, did not lock his daughters away. That has led some people wonder why they did not escape him sooner, or why their terrible suffering was not spotted. There were signs for people to see if they’d only opened their eyes.

The bruises on the bodies of the little girls, after he began abusing them in the early 1980s. The scars on the face of the one who was held painfully close to the gas fire when she would not do what she was told. The broken arm. The multiple pregnancies. The babies born with disabilities, and the foetuses who died because of genetic defects the doctors knew are often caused by incest. The things you would think their mother must surely have seen before she fled, leaving them behind. And the phone calls, by members of the wider family and by the girls themselves, to the police, to social services, to Childline. But still it went on and on, unstopped from 1981 to the summer of 2008, when one of the daughters finally could take no more and told social workers all that was going on.

“They should kill him,” says John, a 60-year-old man in a social club in Sheffield, the city where the family once lived. “Put him in boiling water and make him suffer.” But on the streets outside, there is a different tone. “I feel ashamed of myself for not noticing, not doing anything,” says Elaine, 64. “People don’t talk to each other much round here,” says David, “but I’m surprised nobody noticed enough to do something about it.” There were rumours, fuelled by the sight of the grandchildren. “One of them walks with a limp and the other doesn’t talk right.” These are the things people say, but they give way to the sort of reluctant doubts voiced by a young local called Kevin. (We cannot use full names for legal reasons.) “It is inexplicable why they didn’t say anything about it. After the first baby, maybe, but not when it went on and on.” He pauses, then says: “It’s a terrible thing to say, but maybe they wanted things like that.”

That much we know is untrue. But the mystery of why they did not flee is stronger to those who did not hear the relentless, numbing details of the abuse detailed in court. “He started touching me when I was about five,” said one of the girls, who are both now in their 30s, before the case started. “I didn’t know my youngest sister was being abused until much later.” She was impregnated seven times. Only two babies were born. Her sister was made pregnant 12 times. Five children survive. “Despite [their] being born out of hate,” she said, “we love our kids and always will.”

The Gaffer, as her father liked to be called, was a tall, strong man in the building trade, who started abusing his girls physically when the elder was five years old. In 1981, she was seen by doctors to have bruises on her back, buttocks and arms. Not long afterwards, her sister was admitted to hospital with a broken arm. In 1982, the man’s cousin went to the NSPCC with fears that the girls were being beaten. The cousin’s wife rang social services several times in the following years but “I was always being put through to someone different, and it never went anywhere”.

The abuse became sexual when the elder girl was eight, the court heard. At first the rapes happened every day, then a couple of times a week. The police were called when she turned up at school bruised, but again nothing happened. Teachers were suspicious when she drew a picture of monsters in her bedroom, but she moved schools.

In the early 1990s, the father took them off to live in remote villages in Lincolnshire, moving on every six months or so. Then the elder girl got pregnant at 14. He punched her in the stomach to try to stop the pregnancy but it didn’t work. She ran off with the baby to stay with her grandmother, who yelled at the policeman who was present when the father came to take her back: “He is the father of that baby. Do something.” The policeman warned her that slander was a criminal offence.

Back home, the father realised he was going to get away with it. Now he took to making one girl babysit while the other was raped. He told them their babies would be taken away if they told the authorities. He told them he would kill them. Their mother has insisted she did not know about the rapes. She left them anyway, when they were teenagers. So did their brother, who described the father as a Jekyll and Hyde character who would “turn just with the click of his finger”. He went to the police to report incest in 1997, but his evidence was described in the recent court case as “hearsay”.

There were miscarriages, abortions and babies, each of which brought the young women into contact with health professionals. Doctors even advised the women to stop having babies with whoever the fathers were, for genetic reasons. Two children died just after birth because of defects. Nicholas Campbell QC, for the prosecution, told the court that on one occasion somebody in hospital asked one of the women if the father of the child she was having was her own father. “The daughter was terrified and she denied it. Her mother was present and she collapsed on the floor, crying out, ‘No, it can’t be true.’ But at no time did she ask her daughter questions about the identity of her child’s father.”

The mother now lives on the east coast. She is likely to be questioned by the Serious Case Review inquiry, set up to look at an estimated 150 instances in which police, doctors and social workers could have intervened. Constant changes of address seem to have shaken off suspicions. The girls were made to travel back to Sheffield to see their doctor. Dr Thakur Singh told a reporter on Thursday: “I don’t know why I failed to spot anything. I would need to see my notes again.” He was suspended in 2004, due to concerns including record keeping, and has since retired.

What about the social workers? “A case-based child protection system which operates within tight local boundaries is an easy system to avoid or beat if you have some knowledge about how it works,” says a senior social worker. “All you have to do is move one block away and another local authority becomes responsible.”

It’s harder to build up a family tree in a suspected case, and look for evidence of abuse elsewhere. That was a recommendation made four years ago after a man from Swindon was found to have fathered six children by his own daughter. The scale of what “the British Fritzl” did may be unique, but the manner of it is not. There have been claims that the rapist’s brother abused his own daughter. That, too, was missed.

Back in Sheffield, in a pub close to where the father once drank, the dark question remains. “Why did it take so long to come out?” asks Phil, 42. “They were not locked up in the house.”

No dungeon, then. But the two young women were trapped in a darkness they may not even have been able to see. “The violence they suffered means it is unlikely they were looking for a way out; they were simply trying to survive,” says the social work expert. “Victims of systematic sexual abuse are brainwashed into believing everything their abuser tells them. We have this rescue fantasy about abused children but many have no idea they need to be saved.” Or, if they do start calling for help, how to get anyone to listen.