Twenty years on from the Cleveland Child Sex Abuse Scandal
Pain, Andrew, Evening Gazette, July 8, 2008
TWENTY years ago the
Butler-Sloss report on the Cleveland Child Sex Abuse Crisis was
published. Here the Evening Gazette takes a look back
at the crisis which rocked Teesside, speaks to some of those caught
up in the crisis, and looks at the results of the Butler-Sloss
"CHILD SEX ABUSE HORROR,"
screamed the Gazette headline.
"Sexual abuse of children in Cleveland has reached such
horrifying proportions 24 youngsters were being treated in
Middlesbrough General Hospital on just one day," the report's
first paragraph read.
Physical and sexual abuse of children in the county had
"increased dramatically and beyond all bounds".
The statement was made at a South Cleveland Community Health
Council meeting. The then director of social services Michael Bishop was
asked if the hospital was the right place for the children to be.
Mr Bishop told the meeting the consultant had not been willing to discharge them.
That consultant was Dr Marietta Higgs - a name that can still
send some Teessiders' blood cold 20 years on.
Before the story was published the number of articles regarding
child abuse in the Gazette had been steadily increasing.
Six weeks later and for the next 18-months the paper was running virtually daily updates on the saga, as the nightmare that would
known as the Cleveland Child Sex Abuse Scandal began to unfold.
Between February and July of 1987 121 children on Teesside were
taken from their families and placed in care.
Dr Higgs and her colleague Dr Geoffrey Wyatt believed a
controversial diagnostic practice called RAD - reflex anal dilatation -
indicated abuse had taken place.
In just five months Dr Higgs had diagnosed 78 children as having
been the victims of sexual abuse and Dr Wyatt 43.
On July 9, 1987 the Secretary of State for Social Services ordered
that a public inquiry be held into the scandal.
It was 12 months later when Elizabeth Butler-Sloss - the chair of
the inquiry - published her report.
In her final conclusions Baroness Butler-Sloss stated that the
problems of child sexual abuse had become more recognised in the early
1980s which caused
"particularly difficult problems for the agencies
concerned in child protection".
Baroness Butler-Sloss went on to state:
"In Cleveland an honest attempt was made to address these
problems by the agencies. In Spring 1987 it went wrong."
The public inquiry found most of the allegations of sexual abuse
were unfounded and all but 27 children were returned to their families.
The two doctors were criticized for "over-confidence" in their
Dr Higgs was transferred to Newcastle during the episode but asked to
be reinstated in Cleveland if she was vindicated by the report - a
MP Stuart Bell described as "mind-boggling".
The inquiry also found fault in the actions of almost everyone
involved at the time, including child protection agencies, social services,
the police and the courts.
The total cost of the inquiry to the tax payers of Cleveland
County Council was £ 637,000.
It was the longest running public inquiry in the history of inquiries
at the time and it led to changes in the law with regards to child
Last year the Government admitted "mistakes were made" during
the Cleveland sex abuse scandal.
Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson said techniques used by
doctors at the time of the controversy 20 years ago were "not
Sir Liam was then regional medical officer for the Northern
Regional Health Authority.
Speaking on a Radio 4 program to mark the 20th anniversary of
the beginning of the scandal, he said:
"The techniques that have been used have not been reliable and
it does look as if some mistakes have been made."
The two pediatricians at the center of the scandal, Dr Higgs and
Dr Wyatt, declined to take part in the program. But producer Smita
Patel spoke to Dr Higgs at her home in Kent.
Ms Patel said:
"To this day, Marietta Higgs doesn't accept that the diagnosis
Marietta Higgs is now believed to be based in Kent while Dr Wyatt
works at James Cook University Hospital.
Memory will never be erased
MEMORIES of the
Cleveland Sex Abuse crisis never disappear, says one parent whose children were taken by social services.
He told the Gazette the events continued to cast a shadow over
"The memories never disappear. It just becomes less each day
but it is a memory which will never be erased."
When he and his wife saw their children taken away they lived in
"We hoped the truth would come out and our only concern was
that it would come in time to get a just solution," he said.
He had been happy with the recommendations from the inquiry.
"But what I was not happy with was that the same people were
operating the system. If they can do this once, even with a new system
the potential is still there for it to happen again. Any set of rules
are only as good as the people who operate them."
The parent said it was impossible to put into words his appreciation
for the work of Sir Stuart Bell and he praised the stance taken by
police surgeon Dr Alistair Irvine.