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How social workers took away our children for 11 months without a shred of evidence

Sue Reid, dailymail.co.uk, 09/05/2008

Enjoying the sunshine at a park near their home, the Aston family cling closely to each other as if to make sure they will never be prised apart again.

Jodie, a bubbly ten-year-old, entwines her arms around her brother, Luke, who was 12 last Thursday, while both children smile fondly at their parents, Craig and Donna.

Yet the happy scene is full of poignancy. Until very recently, this Yorkshire couple were trapped in what a High Court judge described this week as "every parent's nightmare".

For an interminable 11 months, Jodie and Luke were removed from their home because their parents faced accusations from doctors of the most hideous crime imaginable: sexually molesting their own daughter.

They were permitted to visit their children only under strict supervision, for just three hours a week. All letters which they sent to Jodie and Luke were vetted by social workers - making them feel like criminals.

What's more, they were cruelly ordered not to say "I love you" to either boy or girl. Throughout this ordeal, the couple always protested their innocence and were relieved beyond belief. 

When Mr. Justice Holman cleared them of any wrongdoing. He ordered the children's return, insisting that his ruling be made public so lessons are learned by doctors, social workers and lawyers working in the child protection service.

In a landmark judgment, he warned that even two decades after the infamous Cleveland child abuse scandal, parents are still being wrongly accused of molesting their sons and daughters.

The Cleveland controversy was Britain's biggest and first mass child abuse scare.

In 1987, 121 children were taken into state care in North-East England over five months after abuse was diagnosed on the basis of physical examinations carried out by a controversial paediatrician called Marietta Higgs.

The parents were often wrongly condemned - just like the Astons today - without their children being listened to or their family background being taken into account.

The doctors in the Eighties had relied on the discredited sign called Reflex Anal Dilatation (RAD), said to indicate sexual abuse.

Last year, the controversial sign was condemned as unreliable by the Government's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, who admitted that its use had led to mistakes in Cleveland.

Everyone hoped the lessons had been learnt from Cleveland. But now the shocking extent of young Jodie Aston's ordeal is becoming clear, it seems that is tragically not the case.

Mr. Justice Holman said it was inevitable that Jodie was now "emotionally damaged" by her experiences.

After the private hearing at Leeds High Court, he said: "Unless there is clear diagnostic evidence of abuse (for example, the presence of semen or a foreign body internally), purely medical assessments and opinions should not be allowed to predominate. Even 20 years after Cleveland, I wonder if the lessons have fully been learned."

 The importance of this judgment cannot be overstated. Jodie's father, a 33-year-old railway signals' engineer, courageously agreed to talk for the first time about the case.

He said: "I hope the judge's words will rein in doctors, and help other parents accused of sexually abusing their children without any real proof."

What happened to the Aston family seems incredible in 21st-century England. They are now seeking legal advice in the hope that the General Medical Council, the doctors' disciplinary body, will investigate their case.

Yesterday, Leeds' Safeguarding Children's Board launched a review into Jodie's case, saying "all relevant, accurate facts" must be taken into account in future child abuse inquiries.

Officials said it was too early to reveal how many other children have been taken into care or even adopted, as a result of suspected sexual abuse over recent years.

However, the Mail is aware of two other families in the city who have had their children removed, largely on the basis of the RAD testing technique, yet who insist they are entirely innocent.

The Astons' nightmare began when they took Jodie, then aged eight, to Leeds General Infirmary's casualty department on a Monday evening in August 2005. She had scraped her groin on a small wall while playing with friends.

She was examined by doctors in Leeds at least eight times. Photographs and videos - later shown in court - were taken of her naked body again and again.

The girl was referred to the community paediatrics department at the city's St James's University Hospital on the following Thursday. Nothing was found to be amiss after an intimate examination. But two months later, Jodie was changing into her pyjamas after school when her mother saw a spot of blood on her pants.

Jodie, who was prone to eczema and had visible raw splits in the skin of her hands and arms, was again taken to casualty before being referred for a second time to the paediatrics unit at St James's.

The hospital has a busy child protection team, overseen by the respected paediatric consultant Dr. Christopher Hobbs.

Significantly, he is an original pioneer of the RAD technique in this country. In June 1986, just a year before the Cleveland controversy broke, Dr. Hobbs and his colleague Jane Wynne introduced young Marietta Higgs to this new way of diagnosing child molestation during a Leeds' medical conference.

By looking at and probing a child's bottom, the paediatricians claimed they could see if there was reflex anal dilatation and - therefore - abuse.

Dr. Higgs enthusiastically embraced the technique, provoking the Cleveland crisis.

However, 80 per cent of the "victims" were later returned to their parents because they had not been hurt at all.

Since then, the nagging doubts about the technique have grown. Today, it is well-known that RAD can appear normally and spontaneously in any child.

According to some paediatricians - notably an expert named Professor Astrid Hegar from America, where RAD has been abandoned in some states - half of all children who have not been sexually abused show the same "tell-tale" sign when their bottoms are examined.

That means, of course, that almost any family taking their child to hospital or the doctor's surgery can be accused of child abuse.

Yet in Britain, many child doctors - including Dr. Hobbs - rely on the technique as an important piece of many pieces in the jigsaw of diagnosing child abuse.

Even before 1987 - at the height of the Cleveland crisis - both Hobbs and Wynne were discovering high numbers of child sex abuse cases in Leeds by using RAD.

According to the doctors' research, published in the medical journal The Lancet, 94 boys and 243 girls were diagnosed as sexual abuse victims in a previous two-year period. The paper - still quoted in medical literature - says that eight in ten of the boys, and a quarter of the girls, had "anal signs".

Astonishingly, in half of all cases, the abusers were deemed to be the children's natural father and - even more bizarrely - five per cent were women. A quarter of the Leeds adults involved were convicted by the courts.

The two doctors wrote at the time: "Sexual abuse is emerging as a major child and mental health problem."

So it was against this background - in a city whose medical establishments were at the centre of the RAD debate - that Jodie Aston was taken by her mother to hospital. It was the first of many visits and, during one, on November 24, 2005, she met Dr. Hobbs.

Although he did not physically examine Jodie, at the end of the appointment he and a fellow paediatrician said that they suspected child abuse. It was a terrible moment for Jodie's mother, Donna.

She says today: "I couldn't believe it. I began to cry. I walked out of there not knowing what to think. Jodie saw that I was quiet, and thought she had done something wrong. I waited in the car park for Craig to come and pick us up."

"I asked Jodie if her Daddy had done anything to her. She said "no" and I believed her. But when I got in the car, Craig saw that I had been crying. He asked me what was wrong and I just mumbled something about child abuse because I didn't want to upset Jodie."

At home, after the children had gone to bed, Donna had to ask her husband a question that no wife should have to. Craig said he had not touched his daughter.

"I was being accused of something worse than murder," Craig said this week.

"From that point, we began to watch the children like hawks."

"We did not allow them even to go to the shops nearby. Luke said we were treating them like babies," added Donna, 34.

However, the family remained under suspicion. Donna was told by the authorities that she was also considered the potential abuser of her daughter.

The following March, Jodie faced another assessment with Dr. Hobbs. Just a few weeks earlier, she had again come home with a small blood spot on her pants.

This time, the paediatrician conducted a physical examination, which included RAD.

He wrote in his report afterwards: "I feel that the time has come for me to involve social services, because I am concerned about the possibility that she may have been sexually abused."

The family were trapped. The doctors ignored Donna's suggestion that eczema might be the cause of the blood spots. Meanwhile, social workers began visiting the family regularly.

Overwhelmed with worry, Craig and Donna were advised to get an independent second medical opinion on Jodie's condition. Therefore, their GP arranged for a doctor called Ruth Skelton to examine their daughter. This proved to be a disastrous move.

Dr. Skelton had been trained by Dr. Hobbs.

As Mr. Justice Holman commented in his judgment: "In my view, the selection of her was deeply regrettable. Dr. Skelton lacked the complete independence that is required for a second opinion in these sorts of circumstances."

"She was being asked to review the previous opinion of someone who was a more senior colleague, then working daily at the same hospital, and who had been her own teacher."

It emerged that Dr. Skelton had discussed Jodie's case with Dr. Hobbs before the so-called independent examination took place in March last year.

Dr. Skelton concluded that she could spot RAD.

According to her report, she said that Jodie had "been sexually abused chronically, over a long period, both anally and probably vaginally . . . I feel that this child is not protected at all at present."

Both Jodie and her elder brother, Luke, were taken away from the parents the same day. It was arranged that they would live with their maternal grandparents, aged 77 and 78, three miles away from their home in Armley, a suburb of Leeds. Donna still finds it hard to relate the story as she sits with the children and Craig in the family's neat sitting room.

She says: "The social workers came at 9.30am to tell us they wanted to remove Jodie and Luke. It was a Thursday. Jodie and Luke were at school. They never came home for almost a year."

"I packed a few things for the first night: toothbrushes, pyjamas, a big bear toy that was Jodie's favourite. Then I had to come home alone."

"Craig was in a worse state than me. I thought he was going to harm himself. We woke up in night crying. We hugged each other because it was as if the children were dead."

This week, she said: "There were more tears, but we had to cope for the sake of the children. On Christmas Day last year, we were only allowed to see them for one hour."

Yet the family's fortunes were changing.

Craig's lawyers had instructed the American paediatrician, Professor Hegar, to give her views. She has examined 40,000 children for suspected abuse during a 28-year career. She believes that a family's history - and a host of other factors - are vital when deciding if a child has been molested.

Professor Hegar studied the medical reports and photographs of Jodie.

She said: "I believe that the medical examiners in this case have relied heavily on Reflex Anal Dilatation as diagnostic of sexual abuse."

"This is a common finding in up to 49 per cent of children who have not been abused. There is no research ... that supports the use of RAD as a sensitive or specific finding for sexual abuse."

Professor Hegar also suggested that dermatologists should examine Jodie to find another cause of her bleeding. One skin expert diagnosed that a small split in her skin, caused by eczema, may have produced the suspect spots of blood on Jodie's underwear.

Her crucial views were also heard by video link during the hearing into Jodie's case. Afterwards, Mr. Justice Holman said Donna and Craig Aston are intelligent, responsible parents.

During the hearing, he met both their "bright and well-mannered" children, giving them chocolate biscuits and talking to them for nearly an hour.

Jodie told him that no one had touched her at home, or at primary school. Her brother Luke declared, quite spontaneously, that it was "all a big mistake".

He added: "We have got the best mum and dad. Why would they abuse my little sister?"

Both of the Aston children said they loved their parents dearly and only wanted to go home. Now, at last, thanks to an enlightened judge, they have finally got their wish.

But how many other families who suffered similarly disgraceful misdiagnoses, more than 20 years after it had been presumed the lessons of Cleveland had been learnt, are still fighting to clear their names?

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