Bully appeal falls apart after scam accusations
A Whanganui woman feels like she is being run out of town in the wake of accusations that a Facebook bullying appeal for her daughter was a scam which misled thousands around the world.
Earlier this month, a Facebook page was set up by New Plymouth woman Renee Langley to ask for birthday cards, letters and video messages to be sent to Gabi Barnett for her 10th birthday.
The girl, who had been diagnosed with epilepsy, was then targeted by school bullies after she invited classmates to her birthday party.
Since then, thousands of heartfelt messages flooded in from around the world.
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People even began sending presents to her Whanganui address.
A large surprise birthday was arranged for Sunday, with donated services from local business people, and a radio station pledged to send Ed Sheeran concert tickets to Gabi. Other children who had been bullied, or had a disability, were also invited to come by Gabi's mother, Toni Barnett.
However Langley said she was no longer talking with Barnett, and she was fighting accusations that the page was set up as a scam: "I'm heartbroken. I haven't done anything wrong."
Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint reported the accusations on Friday, changing some names and not naming the school involved in order to protect the girl. The story centred on a woman who claimed to have set up the Facebook page.
The woman, named "Rachel" in the Checkpoint story, claimed she had discovered Barnett made the whole thing up: that there were no party invitations sent out, and Gabi had never been bullied.
Two parents, whose children also went to the same school, and including one who claimed to have known Barnett for six years, also featured in the story.
They said their children said Gabi was not picked on at school but that some children had politely declined invitations to the Barnett house due to "concerns over the home environment."
Langley would not confirm if she was "Rachel", but said she had spoken to Radio New Zealand about the Facebook appeal.
Langley agreed she had previously been known as Renee O'Keefe. In 2015 she pleaded guilty to nine convictions of fraud for not sending items to Trade Me buyers who had paid her.
She said she was not able to provide any other details about what had gone wrong with the Facebook appeal, but that the truth would come out, and that she was seeking legal advice.
Both women agree Langley set the site up, but they disagree over whose idea it was to start the appeal.
Barnett denied any dishonesty, and said she had not solicited any donations of presents or money.
The Facebook page was set up by Langley last week, and it wasn't until later in the week that a bank account was posted, after many requests from people asking to donate towards a trampoline for Gabi.
"People have gone as low as to say Gabi doesn't have epilepsy. I'd love for my daughter to not have epilepsy," Barnett said.
She had discussed the bullying in depth with Gabi's school Keith Street School, and had been working with staff to find proactive ways for the school to teach children about better behaviour, she said.
A board of trustees representative of the school said individual pupils could not be discussed, but there were no unresolved bullying issues before the board.
However a representative from the Epilepsy Association confirmed she was working with Barnett to provide information to the school.
The Facebook page had been changed to a "secret" setting, Barnett said, because a number of people had joined and left accusations on it. She felt under seige from the number and tone of the accusations against her.
"We've had to hire security for Sunday.
"We try to come together with all the kids who've been bullied and you can't even do that without it being ruined. Why would we have an open party if we were scammers?"