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You are in: Tees > We Are Teesside Old > Features > Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis - Twenty years on

Dr Marietta Higgs

Dr Marietta Higgs

Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis - Twenty years on

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.

The Middlesbrough MP Sir Stuart Bell was involved in the original draft:

"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.

"What we saw as a mountain falling on them in Cleveland, would just be common, usual practise now."

Carol Moffatt, Barnardo's

"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.

"Social workers actually start at the point of believing the abuse has actually occurred, and then looking for evidence to prove it."

Charles Pragnell

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

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.

She says one of the problems is the sheer workload Social Services are having to deal with:

"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.

"We've got everything we probably need, but it isn't working."

Tink Palmer, Stop It Now Campaign

"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
created: 21/05/2007

Have Your Say

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

I was recently the victim of 'trial by suspicion' by my local doctor surgery, due to an 'unexplained injury' on my child (I didn't see it happen but I had a theory about how it happened, but apparently that still makes it unexplained). Despite their knowing that I'd struggled to conceive a baby, they thought the worst of me, and referred me to social services. Thank God that social services were the better people and could see that my husband and I were not a danger to our precious child - they closed the referral straight away. Every time a wrong referral is made, another one that should have been made in its stead slips through the net, wasting the social services' time and failing the children who are *really* being mistreated.

You all complain of the bad work social workers carry out and i see you all telling social workers to ask themselves why do ask yourselves a question...if all of the good that social workers bring was publicised would there be such a bad view? i think that there probably wouldn't. its not fair that social workers are portraid in such a bad way. without them many children would not be saved from the horrific happenings that they have to face on a day to day basis. too many people criticise social services for not doing enough, and other criticise them for doing too much. As a trining social worker at university im sure i will encounter both viewpoints many times in my forthcoming career but i see it as unfair for social workers to be penalised for all of the errors they make yet not praised for all of the good they do. social workers are human too and im sure everyone knows and understand that everyone makes mistakes...but social workers have a job to do and when they think that a child is in danger they have to act in a way that they see fit

Mrs. K. Danby
Things have certainly changed - but not for the better. If you think the family courts in England are bad, you should try the Children's Hearings/Sheriff Court system in Scotland. Talk about a travesty! Read the book "Orkney A Place Of Safety? written about the scandal here in 1991. What happened then - control of the court system and the Children's Hearings by social workers, lies by social workers, corruption from within the local authority in influencing the outcome of cases - is still happening today AND I CAN PERSONALLY VOUCH FOR THAT STATEMENT. The problem is that parents dare not speak out or defy social services for fear of reprisals. Myself and my son defied them and we are still suffering now - three years later. Of course the people who suffer most are the chilren caught up in this corruption. Children's rights - don't make me laugh!! On paper children have rights and should be listened to, but social workers will go to any lengths and tell any lies to prevent a child speaking their mind - after all, they may disagree with the social workers. It is time there was change for the better. Charles Pragnell has certainly spoken out and worked hard to help children. He is now feared and hated by social workers. He is a man who knows what he is talking about as he is talking from his own experience. Listen to him, not the social workers who are only interested in safeguarding their jobs - not the children under their control.

Social workers are not all interested in power and control. Many are over worked and undertrained. They have an uneviable task, consider that if they had been as vigerous in the Clmbie case, that girl may still be alive, would the public have then accused the workers of being "draconian, child snatchers" etc. The remit of social care services is to try and promote the child staying in the family, there are no adoption targets. The public needs to make its mind up, do they want children to be protected? or do they want children to suffer abuse in its many forms and die or become abusers later in lifethemselves.There are thousands of children who are saved from lives of misery by a profession that is reviled throughout the land, I would hope the public wants protection. Social workers are not psychic, they are human beings with the capacity to make errors further they are humans working within a large organisation that ebbs and fows with the political theme of each day. Having witnessed children removed from a household where sexual abuse was seen as a normal family activity and having then seen the family complain that SS was intefering in their lives and also witnessing a families children being allowed to wander the streets at all hours, their 8 year old giving sexual favours for sweets at school..then complaining that social services intefered in their lives,then the statistic of 1200 families complaining of social services is hardly surprising, noone likes to be accused of abusing their children and guilty as well as innocent will atempt to clear their name. The truly innocent have my utmost sympathy but not all who claim innocence even understand that their behaviour is abusive and dangerous. What is important is that the chld must come first in everyones thougts The social worker who decides that a child is in danger of significant harm, does not take it upon themselves to "snatch2 a child lightly. The costs have to be justified, their career is on the line if that child suffers harm because of the inaction of that worker then their career is over, more to the point they have to live with the fact that a child has suffered because of their inaction. Who would want that job? The public hate you for not saving lives and hate you because you used all the training and knowledge available to remove a child before any more percieved harm could befall it, acting too late , waiting for something to happen tha seems inevitable would be seen as "Social Worker blunder!" by the do you win, parents lie, children lie, you have to work your way through truths, mistruhs and untruths, sme being covered by a family that has kept the abuse secret for generations. Walk in the shoes of a social worker for a few weeks then criticise them..somehow I don't think so many would be so quick to do so. Having myself been accused and found innocent of causing deliberate harm to my child I found Social services to be thorough but respectful and it was their actions that inspired me to research their role and difficulties fulfilling it when operating against a tide of public misconcepion fed by the media who use shock to sell papers


i think that the family courts should be open to allow the press to go inside because me and and my partner we have had our daughter taken from us by social services and they are child snatchers they like accusing anybody because they put ideas into childrens heads to say they have been abused because that what has happened to my daughter who is now in long term foster care

ian josephs
Social workers in "child protection" are now reviled throughout the land as "childsnatchers" TAKING CHILDREN FROM PARENTS WHO HAVE NOT BEEN ACCUSED OR CONVICTED OF ANY CRIME WHATSOEVER ! Instead of "helpers" they are known as bullies who intimidate single mothers and whose main intent is meeting "adoption targets" not keeping families together . For ths image to change vital reforms are needed.......; 1:-Abolish the family court secrecy that gags parents who wish to complain. 2:-Abolish "emotional harm" and "risk" as justifications for putting children into care 3:-Abolish "forced adoption"if a parent opposes an adoption in court 4:-Abolish decisions by family court judges to take babies and young children into care.(let juries decide) 5:-Abolish the power of social services to regulate and control contact between parents and children , to censor their conversation or to restrict phone calls.The court must control the frequency of contacts. 6:-Abolish the restriction preventing a lay advisor from presenting a case for parents refused legal aid 7:-Abolish hearsay evidence in family courts and require witnesses to stick to facts without "speculation." 8:-Abolish the removal of children for non life threatening forms of neglect such as absences from school or insanitary dwellings unless a written warning has been served and the situation has not been remedied. These reforms would stop most of the present injustices

ian josephs
Social Workers and others from the family and adoption authorities etc rarely debate the merits or otherwise of the family courts,the social services and adoptions without parental consent . When on those rare occasions they do comment, they always decry their critics as irresponsible,dangerous,and guilty of slandering devoted public servants.They NEVER answer the points made in the argument! I therefore invite someone from social services,the courts,or from government, to comment on the following:- 1:- Parents whose children have been taken are "gagged" from protesting publicly and cannot reveal any details of what they might regard as unfair treatment in the family court.The fundamental right to protest against a perceived injustice is thus completely undermined 2:-Children are often removed because some "professional" decides that they are "at risk".Parents therefore lose their children not for anything they have done but for something someone else thinks they might do at some time in the future! !Who can defend themselves against a mere prophecy that labels them guilty until proved innocent? 3:-Adoption targets do exist and several are published by local authorities on the internet showing the financial rewards for achieving them.(often millions of pounds).Fosterers are often paid £400/£500 p)er week per child,and "special schools charge as much as £6000 per week per child (10 times the fees for Princes William and Harry at Eton!).Adoption agencies (often owned by social workers or ex workers) charge around £18,000 per placement,Experts charge £3000/£4000 for a report on a parent,and lawyers fees + court charges can range from £30,000 to as much as £500,000 depending on the length of the case ! Every body "cashes in " except for the parents and their children ! 4:-Family Court judges nearly always "play it safe" and "go along with social services" treating them like police in the sense that when a parent's evidence conflicts with that of a social worker the latter is nearly always believed.A jury would never take a child for adoption for "risk of emotional abuse" ,"failing to appreciate a child's emotional needs,"or "unable to protect a child from witnessing domestic (often only verbal) violence";Even more certainly a jury would never take a newborn baby for adoption merely because there were unproved suspicions of violence in the father's past,or because another child or newborn baby had previously been taken in completely different circumstances and maybe with a different partner/father.If a burglar facing a possible 6 months jail sentence has the legal right to demand a jury so should parents facing a "life sentence" when they lose their children to adoption by anonymous strangers! 5:-At "contact sessions" parents are in most cases forbidden to mention court proceedings or even that they long for their children's return.Telephone conversations are usually similarly restricted and even forbidden altogether leaving vulnerable children to wonder why their parents do not want them back.The cancelling or reducing of contact sessions is often used as a "weapon" to threaten parents who do not cooperate or who too actively oppose the care plans of the local authority.All this smacks of George Orwell's worst nightmares! 6:- Too often innocent parents who do not confess their supposed errors and repent are labelled non cooperative and "in denial".If mothers are upset when their babies are "confiscated they are "over emotional";If parents are hostile to social workers who take their children they need "anger management courses "and must suffer from" personality disorders" ,and if they dare to criticise the powerful forces leagued against them they are labelled "paranoiac"!

Catherine Sara
No- lessons are not learned because social workers are not properly trained in protection work.They are projecting their own inner unresolvedd issues just like Higgs and Co.Charles Pragnell is one who talks sense.I witness social workers who attend a conference on abuse and then come back and see it everywhere, just like when the Evangelists came to UK before Cleveland and implanted the idea in the minds of professionals.Now today- a nurse I know told me she was told to be on the look out for witchcraft.Do they really think that real abusers are that stupid as to be open about it.?I am dealing with cases where police say no charges and you are free to go- yet SS gestapo will not let go of it until they drain the life and soul out of the family like energy vampires.They need to ask themselves why???The excuse I got from one was that they cannot loose face in front of the pack,Another excuse was they have to show us all that they have the power and the judge is their rubber stamp.That is truth- so it is definitely time to allow the light into the dark chambers of secret SS courts.The legal cases for the future ar piling up as children are being abused each day as they are dragged off by evil social workers who have no emotions left.

Dear readers,I have been involved very recently with social services because an anonyomous call was made to my local social sevices about the bruises to my middle daughters arms. The case was investigated and they found our kids to not be at risk of physical harm as my husband tried to restrain my teenage daughter from leaving home in the dark hours of the night because she did not like our rules and and daughter was verbally abusive to me her mother! However we feel like we are under surveillance from social workers and although help was offered on a voluntary basis I feel if I did not accept this help then I would have my children taken frome me? Had nightmares and my life is very unsettled and not real and my children are very unstable now and so am I as I am scared to death of social services because they have the power to do and not really understand the dynamics of what is classed as the 'normal family' What is considered 'normal' because I am sure people from different backgrounds have a definition of what is normal and what is not and this changes from culture to cutlute and what is also considered normnal from a mediacal background to a social background!Read the Black Report from the 70's about social class and look into lives and social living and behaviour. This is not clear cut and depends largely not just on social class, but culture and right back to financies and how social class differences means a huge difference in what is earned!

i think that the whole system is rubbish. all that social services depend on are these so called "profressional assessments" who THEY appoint to say what they want to because theyre sad people with nothing else todo.they abuse their possition because theyre social services and theyre god. well lets all hope and pray that justice will happen and the whole system is changed and that these people will realise exactly what theyve done to these poor people and their families. Q. how would they feel?????

the ss are only intrested in the pay packet and the power not the children

Mrs K
Too much emphasis is put on the evidence of so called professionals who base risk assessments on a degree of probability. It would not be allowed in the criminal courts. The family courts are a draconian method of allowing an almighty power to legally snatch children and nobody listens to either the parents or the childrens wishes.

Lessons are not being learned. The system is out of control now as the social workers are all into HERD THINKING where one of them cannot break ranks or be demonised by the rest.It is all one large circle of mafia style org where money is the only thing they know and if readers check the amount of tax payers money that is used in all these cases, they will be shocked.This abuse mania was imported from USA- where moral judgement is rife.It seems to be an effort to make drones out of people- all behaving in the same way and no individuality or thinking for themselves.Basically SLAVERY.

Wendy Johnson
Also after expensive inquiries into cases like the Climbie tragedy,one finds the parents and other organisations complaining later that nothing has changed.That the same errors are being made.What is the point of spending millions of pounds on inquiries when lessons are never learnt.One wonders if these inquries are being set up to appease people,then when they are all over things go back to how they were.

im a mother who has suffered this terrible system social workers may have large case loads but if they didnt pick on innocent loving families then they wouldnt have a work load.they go on false evidence and you are not allowed to challenge it in fact you get called a liar in a criminal court this wouldnt be allowed to happen there would be a jury etc how are you supposed to win when everyone is on the local authorities are made to feel worthless.i belong to the group fassit and without them wouldnt have been able to carry on fighting as you think that no-one is there and suffering the same as

Catherine Sara
No.It is still the same as social workers and so called experts jump to conclusions to prove a point. Even when they know there is no abuse- they will tell you that they have the power and must keep you in your place. They also boast of the judges being RUBBER STAMPS- because the judges are not trained like they are. As a professional who happened to suffer at their hands- I can say they abused me mentally, psychologically etc as they did my children. The police referred to it as mental torture, harrassment and intimidation- but as it was all done in secret family law court- no one ever got to hear the truth. I thought I was alone till I found fassit and realised there are lots of us out here in the same boat.I wore a piece of jewellery and I was labelled a cult leader- no evidence was needed and no members names needed- just me on my broomstick. The social worker really thought he had stumbled on another Cleveland style case and was prepared to do anything to prove it. When he could not- he said he would make us homeless and then have the children locked up anyway- as he could not be seen to loose. I was too well up on the law he said and he even got to the independant psychologist and got her to pull out of independant assessment.That is why they boast of more power than Tony Blair.

it was a tragedy. But everyone (probably) meant well at the time. Have we learned lessons? I wonder.

Fassit UK
Question: Have things changed, since Cleveland? Answer: Things have not changed for the better. Indeed, they have reinforced the situation that has always prevailed. It has actually got worse and the paediatricians and social workers involved with that case in 1987, are an excellent example to use, to demonstrate that there is no intent to change for the better, either. In the Cleveland case; Dr. Marietta Higgs who was involved in most of the 121 cases of alleged sexual abuse, of which 98 were dismissed, has continued in her professional career, without a moments interruption. Despite it being known that her judgement was seriously flawed, none of her previous cases has ever been independantly reviewed. Those children who as a result of her involvement were taken into Care and those that were given away to strangers in adoption; have been the victims of possible miscarriages of justice. They and their families have been completely ignored. And the same applies to Dr. Geoffrey Watt, who worked with Dr. Marietta Higgs. And it can be said that every case up to the present reflects the same situation. Despite it being known that the evidence of paediatricians or the social workers or the psychiatrists or the psychologists, has been flawed, incorrect or plainly fraudelent... Nothing has been done to effect restorative justice. No independant checks relating to the identity , the qualifications , the CV of those giving evidence has been undertaken. And this is because there is well founded fear that once one of the expert witness or social workers has been prosecuted and jailed; the alarm bells will cause the House of Cads, that is the Family Courts, to quake for its survival. How would the House of Cads explain that children have been given away in adoption, as a result of fraudelent evidence by social workers, paediatricians or other 'public officials' ? They couldn't and they would not be able to explain why after they had been repeatedly warned, they did nothing! The Minister of the DCA has admitted the secrecy is concealing relevant information from her and Parliament. And still nothing has been done, but attempts to fool the public and Parliament. The Gulag of The Family Courts ( see the book by Jack Frost) cannot cope with independant scrutiny and accountability. Hence it has ignored all the signals and symptoms; fearing exposure. And that is exactly where we were in 1987 at the time of the Cleveland Sexual Abuse Scandal. In no any other justice system would this have been allowed except of course in the UK Family Courts.The Minister of Department of Constitutional Affairs Harriet Harman said of the family courts “for justice to be done - it must be seen to be done” Well still nothing at all has been done, - but instead we have seen only attempts to fool the public and Parliament. The Family Courts cannot cope with independent scrutiny and accountability. Hence it has ignored all the signals and symptoms; fearing exposure. ( THERE IS A EXCELLENT BOOK WHERE MUCH More can be explained called ‘The Gulag of the Family Courts’ by Jack Frost it was introduced to the house of commons library by Eric Pickles MP after a press conference last Wednesday in the commons – the event was set up by the lobby group ‘Justice for Families’ chaired by John Hemming MP.) After the last 20 yrs I have to agree with commentators who have stated that recommendations following on from Cleveland have just not been implemented. “So we are back exactly where we were in 1987 at the time of the Abuse Scandal.” today more parents then ever before are being accused by social services in secret courts.

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