Dr Marietta Higgs
Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis - Twenty years on
By BBC Tees' Martin Forster
Two decades after 121 children were taken from their Teesside families on allegations of sexual abuse, BBC Tees looked into what, if anything, has changed.
Today, parents are still being taken to courts with no public access, no public records and no jury, and more than three families a day are contacting a support group for parents who claim they've been victimised by social services.
So has enough changed following the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis?
If you count it in paper, there is no denying a huge amount has changed - not least the legislation around child protection. Reams and reams of it, in fact. At a cost of £4,000,000, the inquiry into the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis was the most expensive of its kind.
The key piece of legislation to come out of the Cleveland Crisis was the Children Act.
"In the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis, the Place of Safety Order lasted for 28 days without the involvement of solicitors, or police.
"The new Act of Parliament at the time meant that the court had to be informed and advised after three days. That was very important.
"The second thing was, there had to be multi-agency work and co-operation between social services, health authority and the police, so that there was a clear involvement of all of these.
"Thirdly, there was a reiteration of the principle that I hear to this day, 'The interests of the child must be paramount'."
But that hasn't stopped him asking serious questions, not least why the lessons learned about the weight given to experts' opinions in Cleveland were ignored elsewhere:
"One of the problems we had in the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis, which was an endemic problem in the profession, was that a consultant's opinion cannot be challenged.
"That has continued in other fields, as we have seen over the years, where the weight placed upon a consultant's opinion has had very sad consequences in other cases, over and above child abuse."
And twenty years on, the experts courts can call on, still can't agree on how much child sexual abuse goes on.
In 1987, Charles Pragnell was the Head of the team that collected the data and statistics concerning the events which took place.
He has since served as an expert witness and independent Child Protection and Social Care Consultant. He told us:
"Social workers actually start at the point of believing the abuse has actually occurred, and then looking for evidence to prove it, and disregarding evidence which might show that, in fact, the parents are innocent."
In 1987, Tink Palmer was brought to Cleveland to help with the workload. She now runs the Stop It Now campaign against child sexual abuse.
She has a very different opinion:
"We probably manage about ten per cent of people who might be dangerous to children. The other ninety per cent is happening in our communities, and we're not dealing with it."
And serious questions are also being asked about whether families, and children taken into care, are being properly treated by the state.
Middlesbrough General Hospital
The campaign group Fassitt, set up just fifteen months ago to support families who claim to have been mistreated by the child welfare services, has so far been contacted by 1200 families.
The Butler-Sloss Inquiry into the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis Recommended that, "The child is a person, not an object of concern" and warned against violating children's rights in order to protect their best interests.
But we've come across people who claim their children were split up after being taken into care and, in some cases, moved from one home to another on a weekly basis.
Carol Moffatt runs the Bridgeway Project on Teesside, set up in the wake of the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis, to look after children who have been sexually abused.
"What we saw as a mountain falling on them in Cleveland, would just be common, usual practise now.
"In Teesside, in Middlesbrough, in Stockton, there are huge issues where children are at risk of sexual abuse, neglect, through families who have been caught up in the drug culture, we've got children who are sexually exploited...
"There are children in the care setting with foster carers, where plans have to be made for their future. They have to be looked after. It's a massive, massive workload."
Mike Hill from the public services union Unison, who represent social workers, told us:
"Social Workers are under an enormous amount of pressure. They always have been, even twenty years ago, but nowadays things are much tighter.
"There's inter-agency working. The caseloads are just piling higher and higher. It's just a really stressful occupation."
And for all the publicity and new legislation around child sexual abuse, the Stop It Now campaign's Tink Palmer says neither Doctors, nor Social Workers, are taught child protection as part of their major, core training:
"We've had the Sexual Offences Act 2003, we've got practise procedures, we've got Child Protection Registers and so on, and nothing has changed regarding statistics so, for example, the number of children, from disclosure of what's happening to them, to the perpetrator actually getting convicted is less than five per cent.
"In Cleveland's time, it was just over five per cent, so in fact we're even worse off at the moment.
"We've got everything we probably need, but it isn't working."
So new laws... New safeguards... But with social services struggling under an ever bigger workload and the Family Courts still operating behind closed doors, it is all but impossible to find anyone involved with child protection who believes the system works as it should.
last updated: 07/10/2008 at 13:53
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