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 inquiry.
"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 become
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
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 criticised for "over-confidence" in their methods.
Dr Higgs was transferred to Newcastle during the episode but asked to be
reinstated in Cleveland if she was vindicated by the report - a request 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 protection.
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 reliable".
Sir Liam was then regional medical officer for the Northern Regional Health Authority.
Speaking on a Radio 4 programme 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
The two paediatricians at the centre of the scandal, Dr Higgs and Dr Wyatt, declined to take part in the programme. 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 was wrong."
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 their lives.
"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 hope.
"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.