When Melanie Sutcliffe was taken in by Reginald Dixon and his family in the 1970s, it should have marked a turning point.
Having spent her infancy living in chaotic circumstances with her biological father, she was made a ward of court at about the age of four and placed in the Dixons’ care in Belle Isle, Leeds.
Thought to be distantly related to her own family, the Dixons were meant to provide her with the support and security every child deserves.
Instead, the “hell hole” they lived in became a source of unimaginable torment. Years of systematic sexual abuse would cause the girl, now aged 40 and using her married name of Melanie Whelan, lasting damage. She said: “They have literally destroyed my life and my family’s life. Along the lines they’ve destroyed my kids’ lives as well.
“I won’t let my children go and stay at friends’ houses, I won’t let anyone come and stay here.
“People say I’m over-protective but they don’t understand that I lived in a house where there were boys coming into my bedroom virtually every night.
It was something that I experienced from fairly early on. I thought it was a natural thing.Melanie Whelan
“I’ve had people telling me I should be grateful that the Dixons took me in, but I say ‘you don’t know what went on in that hell hole’.”
Melanie was sexually abused by Reginald Dixon’s two sons, Sean and Paul, over several years. Both men also abused another girl.
Sean Dixon committed offences against two further victims.
Reginald Dixon repeatedly raped and assaulted a fifth girl over an eight-year period.
Melanie said: “It was something that I experienced from fairly early on. I thought it was a natural thing.”
Despite that corrupted view of normality, the youngster ran away from the house three times before the age of 13 and on the third occasion told the authorities what was happening.
The investigation collapsed, however, after one of the other victims decided she couldn’t face going to court.
It wasn’t until her 38th birthday that – inspired by the publicity surrounding the investigation into Jimmy Savile’s crimes – Melanie resolved to pursue justice once again.
She said: “People were telling me ‘you won’t get anything done’.
“Then when the Jimmy Savile thing happened I thought, wait a minute, if people can get justice from a dead person, why can’t I get justice from people who are still walking the streets?”
It took almost two years for the case to come to court. During the trial, all five victims gave evidence against the three men, leading to their conviction on a combined 52 charges last month.
At one stage Melanie collapsed in the witness box under cross-examination. But she said: “To me it was worth every minute of it because I knew that they had to be found guilty for what they had done.”
Reginald Dixon, now 68, was jailed for 19 years at Leeds Crown Court.
Sean Dixon, 44, and Paul Dixon, 46, were given sentences of 21 and 11 years respectively.
Judge Rodney Jameson QC branded both brothers “dangerous” and told them: “These were serious offences and have had a catastrophic impact.”
Melanie said she was relieved at the length of the sentences and hopes now to be able to move on with her life.
She added: “To me they are the scum of the earth. They’ve been walking around for the last 20 years like they never had a care in the world.
“I’m just glad somebody listened to me this time. It feels good to know that I’ve been proven to be telling the truth.”
Det Insp Lawrence Bone, of Leeds Child Safeguarding Unit, said the Dixons were responsible for “an appalling catalogue of sexual abuse”.
He added: “They clearly present a danger to children and the seriousness of their offending has been recognised with the significant prison sentences that they have received.
“We hope it will provide some source of comfort and reassurance to the victims to see them now having had to answer publicly for their crimes.
“This case should again illustrate that the passage of time is no barrier to justice. I would like to assure any person who has suffered such abuse that no matter when this happened West Yorkshire Police has specialist safeguarding officers who will listen and investigate and do we all we can to see offenders like these brought to justice.”
Officials say vulnerable children in Leeds are safer today.
Jane Held, chair of the Safeguarding Children Board, said: “Since these offences were committed 30 years ago there have been significant changes to ensure that vulnerable children are protected. The establishment of Local Safeguarding Children Boards provides an important mechanism to support agencies to work together and, where necessary, to hold them to account, as well as ensure young people are listened to.”