No other case of child abuse in New Zealand's history has held public attention so strongly and for so long as the Christchurch Civic Creche case. While charges against four of his female colleagues were dropped after an 11-week preliminary hearing, Peter Ellis was later sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

Fourteen months later, a child retracted her allegations, saying that she had said only what her mother had wanted her to say. A report in 2001 by the former Chief Justice, Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, commissioned by the Attorney-General, concluded that the remaining convictions should stand.

Ellis maintains, even after release from custody, that he is innocent.

Lynley Hood, the author of books on baby farmer Minnie Dean, the only woman to be hanged in New Zealand, and controversial educationalist Sylvia Ashton-Warner, has bravely done what no one else dared - search for answers to the question of what did or didn't happen at the Christchurch Civic Creche.

Hood's investigation was as an independent researcher - one who persisted, despite legal and other pressures, to get to the bottom of the case.

It is noteworthy that she did not set out on a personal crusade to free Ellis. (Ellis had to buy his own copy of the book to find out what was written, and the book was not published until after his release.)

Why did Hood spend seven years on this book? She is a respected writer, a Dunedin grandmother with an MSc in Physiology. A $9000 grant from the Arts Council (now Creative NZ) probably barely covered the costs of her wide investigation, let alone gave her anything to live on.

Hood's motivation came first from her interest in folk tales and how they may reinforce our stereotypes and validate our beliefs.

Child abuse is a major folk-tale theme.

As she dug deeper into the case, Hood's motivation turned into a solemn responsibility to report her findings.

In short, Hood's book points to how the social climate in Christchurch at the time meant that a Peter Ellis-type case was inevitable; she argues that the professional careers of many experts benefited from the case while more than 100 children were subjected to unpleasant and psychologically hazardous procedures for no good reason.

The book is not just about the Ellis case, it is also about the treatment of children and families and how social agendas and beliefs can escalate to have such a powerful negative effect.

What I find troubling, as an educationalist, is just how ineffective regulations and regulatory bodies (the Education Review Office and the Ministry of Education) are when it comes to dealing with situations such as the Civic case. The Civic received a glowing report from the Education Review Office not long before the City Council closed it after pressure from publicity surrounding the police investigation.

Was Ellis guilty? Hood concludes that he was not. It appears likely that he was tremendously unlucky, a victim himself - being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

This case has had sad repercussions for children in the preschool and compulsory school education systems in New Zealand. The teachers' union, NZEI, has promoted a policy of teachers avoiding physical contact with children because they view any form of touch to be risky. Male teachers find gaining employment, especially in childcare, tough, as employers fear they may be another Ellis because of their gender.

When the controversy has died down over Hood's detailed presentation of the other side of the creche story, it will be intriguing to see if and how this may impact on practices and policies within education and other children's organisations.

Lawyers certainly seem interested in Hood's analysis - the first book sales in Christchurch apparently were to lawyers.

A City Possessed is scholarly in tone but is a gripping and accessible read. Its length and seriousness of topic are unlikely to attract Joe or Mary-Jane Bloggs public to pick a copy from the bookseller's shelf. It is a work of scholarship to a high standard. Such a high standard is rarely seen today and will be appreciated by readers.

Indeed this is a book that is likely to be referred to by lawyers, historians, sociologists, social workers, child health professionals, psychiatrists and, I hope, educational administrators for years to come.

Longacre Press


* Dr Sarah Farquhar is an early childhood researcher, commentator and editor of Child Forum