Vanessa George has been released from prison this week
The last time Vanessa George was seen in public she was standing in the dock at Bristol Crown Court, listening to the hate-filled screams of parents whose babies and toddlers had once been entrusted to her care.
The former nursery worker had just been given an ‘indeterminate’ prison sentence for abusing children as young as 18 months old at the Plymouth nursery where she worked.
She swapped photographs of the abuse with other paedophiles she met online.
That decision, declared Mr Justice Royce to the court, meant that even though the mother of two would be eligible for parole in seven years, he was passing what was ‘in effect a life sentence’.
Devastated parents present that day understood him to mean George would be locked up for a very long time indeed.
No wonder, then, that this week, as the 49-year-old was released from prison less than ten years after she entered it, many of them were feeling utterly let down by the justice system and questioning how they could have been so misled.
‘In court we were told she’d be put away for a long time,’ one mother told me this week. ‘What has happened is a complete betrayal of all our children and us.
‘We can’t believe she is now free while we have been left with a lifelong legacy of grief. The feelings of horror and guilt never go away. It’s a torment to know she is out.’
The 41-year-old mother’s son, who was nearly three years old when George cared for him at Little Ted’s Nursery, is now 13. This week, after hearing news of her release, he asked his parents: ‘Is the bad lady coming back?’
His parents are still unsure whether the youngest of their three children was among those abused and photographed by George. She has always refused to reveal her victims’ names — their faces did not appear in the images she made — leaving every parent who left a child in her care facing the terrible possibility that their daughter or son was among them.
The former nursery worker swapped photographs of the abuse with other paedophiles she met online
‘If she was sorry for what she’d done, she’d name them and put us all out of this misery of not knowing,’ says the boy’s 42-year-old father. ‘How can she claim to be rehabilitated if she’s not remorseful?’
Even members of her family, who have asked to remain anonymous, told the Mail this week that in their opinion she was better off staying in prison.
‘It might have been easier just to lock her up and throw away the key,’ said one relative. ‘She’s clearly not a decent member of society. Can she ever be one again? I don’t think so.’
Another said: ‘There are so many people down here who feel very strongly about what she did, it’s no wonder they are stopping her coming back to Devon. It’s probably safer for her in prison — and I’m not sure she has even served enough time for what she did.’
The mother of a boy cared for by George still vividly recalls the day in June 2009 when she arrived at nursery with her toddler son and found it cordoned off by police. News quickly spread that one of the nursery staff had been arrested on suspicion of child abuse.
At an emergency meeting in a church hall the next day, the atmosphere became hysterical as police tried to establish which of the children might have been among George’s victims.
‘They asked us if any of our children had distinctive birthmarks or scars or anything that might identify them,’ she says. ‘Most of them, like ours, didn’t. It was impossible to know who was in the photos.’
While she and her husband gently questioned their son, trying to find out if anyone had harmed him, he was too young to understand what was going on.
‘He was a happy child and you just had to hope nothing had happened to him.’
Today, she says, her teenage son knows who George is, that ‘the horrible lady’ was in prison for abusing children and that he once attended the nursery where she worked, but he has never asked his parents directly whether he was one of those she targeted.
‘He always moaned about going to nursery,’ says the mother, ‘and of course now I feel terribly guilty about that. Once, when were on the way there, he kept saying his leg hurt and I thought he was just making it up. Now we will never know if there was a more sinister reason.’
One incident in particular is still painfully etched on her mind.
George, who had been married for more than 20 years at the time she was arrested, took 124 obscene images of children on her mobile during a six-month period
‘I’d arrived to pick him up and he’d wet himself. Vanessa George asked if I wanted her to change him into his spare clothes before I took him home. I said yes.’
She finds it torturous now to think of her son lying on the changing mat where George abused many of her tiny young victims, sexually assaulting them with toothbrushes, crayons and even a plastic golf club.
It is this poisonous legacy of uncertainty, says the mother, that makes her and other parents certain George is not fit to be released from prison.
George, who had been married for more than 20 years at the time she was arrested, took 124 obscene images of children on her mobile during a six-month period. She shared them with two other paedophiles she met on the internet — Colin Blanchard, who was the lynchpin of the group, and Angela Allen.
The trio, who had never met in person until they appeared in the dock together, egged each other on to abuse children and were only caught when one of Blanchard’s business colleagues came across the explicit images on his computer.
In court, where George pleaded guilty to seven sexual assaults on young children and six counts of making and distributing indecent images of children, her barrister claimed Blanchard had encouraged her to commit the abuse.
That claim was rejected by Mr Justice Royce, who said: ‘She is not a child. This is a married woman who can make up her own mind whether she indulges in this sort of activity or not.’ He appealed directly to George, who described herself online as a ‘paedo whore mumma’, to reveal the names of the children she harmed.
‘I would like your help,’ he said, adding that she ‘must know’ who was in the photos. Speaking to her lawyer, he added: ‘If I were a parent, I would want to know if my child was abused or not. Would it not be decent for her to indicate who she has abused?’
Plymouth MP Luke Pollard told the Mail this week that George’s release was ‘a dark day’ for the parents whose children were once placed in her care, and one that ‘reopened all the wounds of ten years ago’.
‘She’s not just any criminal,’ he said. ‘She is Britain’s most prolific female sex offender and she is still wielding power over these families by not naming their victims.’
Having been quietly released under licence from Bronzefield women’s prison in Ashford, Middlesex, on Wednesday, George is believed to be staying in a probation hostel, at a cost to taxpayers of about £30,000 a year.
Such hostels, managed by National Probation Service staff, each have between 15 and 20 bedrooms. Bathrooms are shared and the women are provided with three meals a day. George will also attend weekly meetings with a dedicated probation officer, at which she will be expected to talk about how she has spent her time and discuss her feelings, as well as the risks she faces on the outside.
She is subject to strict conditions including a night-time curfew and a ban on using social media or owning any device with access to the internet. She is not allowed to return to Devon and Cornwall or to travel to a third county where one of her victims is believed to have moved, as well as 20 other exclusion zones connected to those affected by her crimes.
She will never again be allowed to work with children or have unsupervised contact with them, and will be on the sex offenders’ register for the rest of her life.
Despite all these conditions, Luke Pollard said there were real concerns among families about how George’s parole conditions will be enforced.
‘The idea that in today’s society they can keep her away from the internet for ever is ludicrous,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to be certain that adequate resources are being made available to ensure there are no lapses.
‘These parents have been through hell and now they have a whole new set of worries.
‘The criminal justice system is not listening to victims. I want to see the rules around parole changed, particularly for those who refuse to name their victims.’
Such was the strength of feeling about George’s impending release from prison that Mr Pollard had a meeting with Devon and Cornwall police, who subsequently re-examined their files to see whether further charges could be put to George so she could be kept behind bars.
But officers were only able to find ‘corresponding charges’ — lesser charges relating to crimes of which she had already been found guilty. As these would not increase her sentence, no further action was taken.
The contradictory message sent out at the time of her sentencing — when parents were told she could be out in seven years but would probably be in prison for life — goes back to a policy brought in by the last Labour government.
Sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs) were introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 by then Home Secretary David Blunkett. The Home Office originally estimated they would imprison only 900 ‘dangerous’ criminals under such sentences.
Those convicted would be given a fixed tariff like any other prisoner but could be kept in prison for as long as the Parole Board deemed them a threat to society.
The maximum sentence George could receive for her crimes was seven years — but by giving her an indeterminate sentence, Mr Justice Joyce may well have believed she would be kept inside for much longer than that.
Sentences of IPP were scrapped in 2012, amid claims they were violating human rights and causing prison overcrowding. As the numbers of IPP prisoners grew, more and more convicts demanded access to the rehabilitation and resettlement programmes they had to undertake to show they were no longer a risk to society.
There were claims, too, that such sentences were affecting prisoners’ mental health, with a report by the Prison Reform Trust stating that IPP prisoners suffered the highest rates of self-harm in prison.
Last year, Sam Gyimah, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prisons and Probation, said the Government was focused on increasing the number of IPP prisoners released by processing their cases ‘as quickly as possible’.
In March this year, 2,400 such prisoners remained. Of those, 43 —including George — were women.
The decision to release her was taken after a Parole Board hearing in July this year which determined that she was safe to be freed from jail, after she convinced them that she had undergone treatment for her low self-esteem.
The board noted how ‘all the professional witnesses recommended that Ms George be released’.
But is it possible that George — who now goes by her maiden name, Vanessa Marks — is no longer a threat to the public? The families of the children she once cared for don’t think so.
Victims’ rights campaigner Harry Fletcher says George’s apparent lack of remorse means her release is ‘worrying’.
‘Scores of parents in the areas where she worked don’t know whether their child was a victim,’ he says. ‘The prison system should have taken that into account. Given the enormity of what she did, her sentence was grossly inadequate.’
Mr Fletcher said he understood ministers were urgently looking at George’s case with a view to changing guidelines on sentence length.
Given the level of hatred directed at her, it is hard to imagine how George will be able to revert to anything resembling a normal life.
She is unable to return to the South West of England, the only place she ever lived before going to jail, and was divorced by her husband Andrew shortly after being sent to prison. She is estranged from their two daughters, who are now adults, and her parents are dead.
For those affected by her crimes, George’s wellbeing is of no concern. ‘I hope her life is torture because that’s what she’s done to us,’ says the father who spoke to the Mail this week.
Families with connections to Little Ted’s Nursery have spent the past decade trying to put the horror of her crimes behind them. That the monster who preyed on their children is back out on the streets again is, for them, the greatest injustice of all.
- Additional reporting: Izzy Ferris