Why the Jeremy Forrest case is NOT a love story

[Trigger warnings: sexual abuse, grooming, victim-blaming]

Clearly the Sun must have either a short memory or a lot of gumption. Today they’re trumpeting the headline that Jeremy Forrest wants to wed the teenage girl he abducted, and the girl’s father would be happy to walk her down the aisle. Yesterday they reported that other teenage girls, some as young as 13, had received advances from him. The story focuses particularly on one girl who describes what sounds like some fairly classic grooming behaviour, while another was touched inappropriately and a third was receiving texts and online messages from him.

Really, Sun? From sexual predator to star-crossed love story in the space of 24 hours? Don’t you read your own newspaper?

I’ve read a lot of comments on social media trying to depict the Forrest case as some sort of modern-day Romeo and Juliet, in which the authorities have simply over-reacted. The trouble is, such suggestions are immediately scotched simply by reading the judge’s remarks prior to sentencing. There are almost no mitigating factors and a whole slew of aggravating ones.

Just to prove what absolute rot is being spoken out there, I’ve juxtaposed some excerpts from the sentencing remarks with a selection of quotes that I found through a quick trawl on Twitter. The sentencing remarks are in bold. The tweets are in italics.

“I really don’t understand how Jeremy Forrest is guilty of abduction when she willingly went with him”

“the evidence showed clearly how concerned your fellow members of staff were for your reputation as a teacher. They responded to the reports from students of your behavior and their own observations. Time and time again between Feb and July 2012, they warned and advised you and offered you support. You lied to them as to the nature of your developing relationship and denied sending the messages and photos that pupils had seen.”

“This is so wrong, she consented”

“You even complained that the rumours that were circulating were lies by X. You lied to her mother and complained that X’s silence in relation to those ‘false’ rumours was ruining your career and that she was harassing you. She felt mortified that her daughter was behaving in that way.”

“Wife and him were distant well before this happened. She didn’t and still doesn’t get on with her Mum. Jeremy was her saviour.”

“I am satisfied that you deceived X, too, about the true nature of your relationship with your wife.”

“Prosecution used terms like ‘paedophile’ and ‘grooming’ and the jury bought it.”

“I have seen nothing in the evidence which shows that at any stage you tried to provide proper boundaries between yourself and her, to discourage her, or let other staff deal with the matter appropriately. Indeed all the evidence shows that you encouraged her infatuation and provided opportunities for her to communicate with you and be alone with you.”

“Maybe she exploited his sensitive and caring vulnerability :-)”

“Your research into what might happen to you, if caught, is proof of the deliberate nature of your behavior.”

“I don’t really get how Jeremy Forrest got 5 and a half years, he didn’t exactly abduct her or do anything she didn’t want :S”

“On 20th September you took her to France. I suspect you went for your own purposes. In taking her with you, you subjected her family to appalling distress and concerns for her safety. You made no attempt to think of their welfare or let someone know she was safe.”

“he may have done it the *wrong* way, but he potentially saved her from suicide or some other fate on her own in France”

“You have contested the abduction charge raising a spurious defense, so that she had to give evidence, evidence very different in content from her original account and designed to support it. She had clearly received assistance in relation to what she should say.”

“He said sorry for failing her, and putting her through all the proceedings – that’s what a genuinely caring guy would do :-)”

“Where is that genuine care for her welfare that is the hallmark of a truly loving relationship?”

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Jeremy Forrest and the Abuse of Trust

A couple of years ago, I was working as a nurse in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) with a 16 year old girl. One day, out of the blue, she confessed an attraction to me.

My immediate response – other than to put in a referral to an optician’s, obviously – was to politely but firmly remind her that I was her nurse, that there was no prospect of anything but a professional relationship, and to suggest to her that she look for a boyfriend her own age. I also made sure that I didn’t work with her again unless there was a female colleague present.

Despite what you may think from Mills and Boon novels (those aren’t grounded in social realism? Who knew?) sexual relations between nurses and patients are strictly verboten under the Nursing and Midwifery Council Code.

20. You must establish and actively maintain clear sexual boundaries at all times with people in your care, their families and carers

If I hadn’t kept my boundaries, I wouldn’t have only been committing serious professional misconduct. I would also have been committing a criminal offence. The girl was 16, and therefore over the age of consent. However, she was in my care, and that would make it a crime under the Sexual Offences Act of “abuse of a position of trust”, which runs up to the 18th birthday. There are good reasons for this. The power of a teacher, nurse, social worker or children’s home worker over a young person can be enormous. With that comes the capacity to do enormous damage to vulnerable kids if boundaries aren’t respected and trust is abused.

I mention this because of a depressing slew of responses – often left in the comments threads to online newspaper articles – accusing the police and media of “hounding” a “young couple in love”. Some of those people seem to think if Jeremy Forrest had waited a few months then it all would have been fine – and for the reasons listed above, it wouldn’t. Others seem to regard the girl as some sort of teen seducer.

Have a look at this comment piece in the Independent. The author, quite rightly, takes the Daily Mail to task over a tacky, voyeuristic article that dissect’s Forrest’s relationship with his wife and with his pupil, by trawling their social networking accounts. If the Independent piece is good and well-argued, the comments left underneath are…..Oh dear.

As his lawyer said, his only crime was that he fell in love with a 15yr old…he was stupid the way he went about it, but I don’t think there will be any more than 5-10% of anyone who knows about this story that thinks he did it with any malice or force/manipulation of the girl, and that she didn’t know what she was doing. Again we’re casting judgement…but all I’m said is that I agree with Martin – love has no boundaries.

Was this a manhunt for murderers and war crimials or just a besotted couple? ………….Sad sad journalism indeed.

There’s been a few surprising voices added to this chorus. Peter Tatchell, for example, is someone I often agree with.

I subsequently had a Twitter exchange with Mr Tatchell. In all fairness, he was very clear that his view was that he’s not defending Forrest, and if he had a sexual relationship with his pupil, then he should be prosecuted for it. Mr Tatchell insisted his only objection was use of the word “abduction” for taking her to France.

Fair enough, but does Mr Tatchell really think any parent would agree that a teacher should be allowed to take their 15 year old daughter out of the country without their knowledge or permission?

Ironically, it’s the tacky Daily Mail article that gives a few hints that describing them simply as a couple in love is dubious to say the least.

[The girl], who describes herself on Twitter as a ‘self-loathing, music-loving, art and fashion-obsessed nostalgic loner’ was reported missing last Friday after failing to turn up at her school in Eastbourne.

A “self-loathing loner”? Admittedly it’s entirely possible to read too much into somebody’s Twitter profile. Even so, it does beg the question of whether that sounds like the self-description of a confident, beckoning Lolita.

One could argue – and admittedly this is speculation on my part – that it  sounds more like a girl who may be quite vulnerable. Perhaps even someone who might be susceptible to grooming.

Ultimately these are questions that will be decided in a court rather than in blogs, tweets and online comment threads. Even so, it ought to give those who depict the girl as an equal partner – or even a teenage seducer – some pause for thought.