Ten years ago, 121 children in Cleveland were taken from their parents. The doctor who suspected sexual abuse was vilified and 96 were sent home. But to what? Second opinions have since confirmed 75 per cent of her diagnoses…
Cleveland, Orkney, Rochdale, North Wales, Belgium; the West family. This has been a decade of child sexual abuse cases, of gradual child sexual abuse awareness. What once seemed unimaginable and unspeakable is now at last painfully understood and articulated that a large number of (usually) men, often fathers, rape the little children in their care; that behind closed doors, in the hearts of apparently happy families, terrible crimes are committed upon those least able to defend themselves. That children as young as one are buggered by those they love. The crimes are rarely reported; they are carried out in secret and depend upon the silence of the victims and the collusion of society. Even today, we can easily ignore the signs written on the children’s bodies and encoded in their behaviour.
In the Cleveland controversy, which began 10 years ago this month, when 121 children were taken from their families on the strong suspicion of sexual abuse and placed into care, everything came together to prevent unspeakable truths being spoken. The silence upon which child sexual abuse depends was rudely and briefly broken by Marietta Higgs and her supporters, then reinstated once again.
As an episode in our recent history, Cleveland points, Janus-like, in two opposing directions: it was both the start of our awareness about child sexual abuse and the start of the backlash. It broke and taught silence. It was also an extraordinarily ideological crisis. People saw what they wanted to see and it was impossible to see the other side’s view at the same time. Like one of those drawings which depicts either a vase, or two profiles, but never both simultaneously, one world blotted out the other. You were for children’s rights or for parents’ rights, for professionals or for the family, for disruption or the status quo, for terror or for comfort. Truth became a moral swamp. Most of us were relieved when the crisis was ‘resolved’ and the doors closed on the returned children, and the agitated families sank back into invisibility once again.
At the time of Cleveland, I was one of those ineffectual liberals who flapped hopelessly between the two views, finding it difficult to sustain either, and eventually assuring myself that it was impossible ever to know what had gone on in those Cleveland families. Ten years on, I believe I was wrong. I believe that it was possible to know a lot more than we ever allowed for, and that, sacrificed to our unknowing, many of the 121 children who were rescued from family torture were returned to their abusers. This, of course, is almost too terrifying to contemplate.
A three-part documentary about Cleveland, The Death of Childhood, starting on Channel 4 this Tuesday at 9pm, ran straight into the intractability of its subject during its making, when the MP for Middlesbrough, Stuart Bell, contacted Bruce Gyngell, head of Tyne-Tees television, urging him to reconsider the project, which could distress families in Cleveland; Gyngell argued to his executive board that the documentary already in production should be discontinued; its director took leave from the company in order to finish it.
So as the documentary shows over and over again the silence continues: Marietta Higgs, the consultant paediatrician at the heart of the controversy who was treated like a witch by the media, is now based at the Dumfries and Galloway health authority. She would speak neither to the film-makers nor to me. She had ‘no comment to make at this particular time’. Some people say bluntly that she has been ‘gagged’. Doctor Alistair Irvine chief police doctor and opposed to Marietta Higgs and her methods had ‘nothing further to say’ when I called him.
Stuart Bell agrees there was hysteria around the issue. He never wanted to become a ‘crusader’ on behalf of the families, he insists. He does not now want to ‘rake over the past’.
Sue Richardson, the child abuse consultant at Cleveland County Council in 1987, has just resigned from her job as a project manager for NCH Action for Children, where she works with adult survivors of abuse, in order to talk to the makers of The Death of Childhood and to the Observer. ‘I felt that I had to. My employers did not support me speaking about it ironic in view of their own work with abuse. I know I carry an unwanted message. I have become a refugee professionally dispossessed. But to remain silent is to collude. I have decided that I must now speak out.’
She says to me, emphatically, that, ‘there is no doubt whatsoever that Cleveland County Council returned children, believing that they had been abused. That was the effect of the controversy the whole thrust was to damp down the controversy. The children were returned to abusers. Yes.’
She is not saying that she is absolutely certain that every single child of the 121 who were removed from their families was abused because ‘as a result of the controversy their cases were not properly investigated’, but 10 years on, she remains sure ‘that I have no reason whatsoever to doubt the original diagnoses’.
In Middlesbrough, everybody remembers, although they do not want to be reminded. On a sunny day I was a cloud-bearer, just by mentioning it.
‘I’ll tell you what I thought,’ says a youngish man, pushing his face pugnaciously into mine. ‘I thought Marietta Higgs and her cronies should have been dragged here’ he flaps at the shopping arcade ‘and been strung from that lamp- post. I would have done that. She should have been struck off the register, never to work again.’ Did he, I ask, have no doubt at all that she was wrong in her diagnoses of sexual abuse? ‘No, course not. It was proven, wasn’t it?’ And do you, I asked, turning to the woman at his side, think the same? ‘Yes, she does,’ said the man aggressively, and towed her away.
‘Disgusting, that’s what I think,’ said another, older, man. Disgusting in what way? I inquire. Disgusting that child abuse should happen, disgusting because he thought it hadn’t happened, or disgusting that I should be asking? ‘All of them. All disgusting.’
Most of the men were equally vehement; the women seemed less sure and more distressed when they talked about it and recent research shows that, in general, women are (unsurprisingly, since they are not so implicated) more willing than men to believe that child sexual abuse goes on. But by far the most usual response to my questions about Cleveland was that in Middlesbrough they did not want to remember, I shouldn’t ‘stir it up’ or ‘muddy the waters’; someone like me, snooping, would only make trouble. It is all ‘finished’, over and done with. ‘It’s better to forget,’ said one woman.
Ruth will not forget Cleveland. As a girl, she was a direct victim of the controversy there. Although she was not one of the 121 children who were removed from their families and then returned, her story is horribly emblematic of a climate of fear and repression, and she was for years one of the unheard. When we speak, she uses a very calm voice, as if she is trying to stop any emotion from slopping out into our conversation. If she starts to cry, why should she ever stop?
From as early as she can remember, she was physically and sexually abused by her father. During the day he would hit her; at night he would come into her room and have sex with her, both vaginal intercourse and buggery. (It is, I am told by a child abuse expert, anatomically possible to have anal sex with a one year old; vaginal sex is not possible until about seven.) Ruth’s mother claims she did not realise, ‘yet she could not possibly not have known about the violence, at least,’ says Ruth. ‘He was so violent.’ He would kick her in the face, stomach, back, bottom, over and again and in front of her mother, so: ‘Forgive me if I don’t believe her.’ Ruth has siblings; she does not know if they too were abused although she does know that usually an abuser has more than one victim.
Ruth ‘always told people what was going on’ and the fact that they either did not believe her or did nothing was ‘just another confirmation of my low self-esteem; I wasn’t worth protecting.’ She told her schoolteachers, youth leaders, neighbours, the parents of friends: ‘I did my very best to get help.’ Later, a woman at the local church apologised to Ruth for not getting involved: ‘She told me it would have been too upsetting; too upsetting.’ When she was about 11, she went to her GP with a schoolfriend (‘friends were the only ones to take it seriously’), because her vagina was sore. ‘He asked when it was most uncomfortable; was it after I did a wee? I said that no, it was worst when someone put anything big up my vagina, like a penis.’ As a result, her GP referred her to see a psychiatrist with her parents, with her father. This is a world Hitchcock would have recognised. Ruth tells me her joyless story as if she is holding it at a distance the better to bear it. She was ‘disbelieved even before the crisis broke’. What the controversy meant for her was that she had no chance of rescue by the embattled authorities who, after 1987, found it very hard to act on their suspicion, and were anxious to avoid dreaded controversy. She remembers watching Marietta Higgs on television: ‘I knew, I just knew, that if only I could get to her she would make me safe.’ She wanted to be taken away, but never was.
When her parents separated in 1989, Ruth at last went to the police and told them, as she had told so many others, what had been going on in the household. ‘My father was applying for unsupervised access to all of his children, and I felt I had to take responsibility.’ But this was post-Cleveland, and ‘the Crown prosecution threw out the case for want of evidence’. The abuse only stopped when she came of age and was able to leave home. Several years later, her father was finally put on trial, convicted, and sent to prison. In court, Ruth looked at him after years of separation and saw a little man. ‘As a child I was small tiny, emotionally. He seemed huge. Suddenly, I felt bigger than him after all, it doesn’t take a big or tall person to terrorise and abuse a little girl, does it?’
She feels that Cleveland was a disaster for her personally, and for the country in general because it made people worry about the parents’ rights rather than the children’s. ‘We should turn things round, so that we are not asking, are we sure the child’s in danger? but, are we sure the child is safe?’ She talks about the difference between a scar and a wound. ‘I hope one day it will just be a scar.’
IN 1987, CHILD sexual abuse had only recently become a category on the child abuse register. There were no guidelines as to how to deal with it; there was no collective agreement between the police, doctors and social workers as to procedures. The police and social services had up to then relied on children to make an initial complaint, yet abused children very often never complain or reveal. As Ruth says: ‘It seems unfair to wait for a child to tell you they’ve been abused if they don’t have the words or if they can’t or if they daren’t or if they’re frightened.’ Marietta Higgs, however, was trained to recognise the medical signs of abuse on young children’s bodies (and 32 of the 121 Cleveland children were under three; one was just seven months). One of the signs that she and her fellow paediatrician, Geoff Wyatt, looked for that would suggest abuse was Reflex Anal Dilatation, the stretching of the internal sphincter after buggery or, to put it simply, a gaping anus. RAD became a fiercely debated method of detection. Yet as Sue Richardson, then the child abuse consultant inCleveland, says: ‘Here, for the first time, was the possibility of closing a loophole which abusers had relied on for years, that little children would be unable to tell . . . It was, should have been, an enormous breakthrough for the children.’
On the other side, however, were the parents, who could suddenly find their children taken from them, without any warning and without adequate right of appeal. In emphatically protecting the child who might be at risk, the rights of parents are inevitably neglected. There will either be as Marietta Higgs herself recognised the possibility of missed diagnoses or of misdiagnoses. In the end, you have to choose whose interests are to be protected: parent’s or child’s.
The first children to be diagnosed by Dr Higgs were two girls, aged four and two. Their family codenamed M had worried social workers for more than two years, and the elder child had been admitted to hospital seven times for non-accidental injuries and failure to thrive. Dr Higgs examined her and stated she had been sexually abused. Both little girls were placed with foster parents. Prior to a court hearing, the children were re-examined; new signs of abuse were found. If the evidence was to be believed, the foster home was also a place of abuse. Meanwhile, at Middlesbrough Hospital, several cases of suspected child abuse were being referred each day; the system was beginning to buckle under the strain.
Jean had three daughters, then aged two, four and seven. She was separated from her husband, who was living with his girlfriend, but he saw the girls quite regularly. One day, she took her youngest girl to Middlesbrough Hospital because she was having convulsions; she mentioned that the two-year-old had also been ‘bleeding from the backside’. She had already taken her to see the GP and to the health clinic, and they had told her that it was because of constipation. ‘I knew that this wasn’t true.’ At the hospital, she asked the doctors to please find out what was wrong with her daughter.
‘They examined her and they asked to see my other two daughters. It did cross my mind then that my husband might have . . . but I kept thinking he wouldn’t have dared do that to them. Marietta Higgs came and checked them all; she told me what they’d found. I saw their bottoms, and it was, aah . . . they were, you know, gaping. I knew there was something badly wrong. The only person they had contact with, apart from me, was their father.’
‘The four year-old, when she was asked, said at once it was her dad. The two year-old, well, she couldn’t speak of course. The eldest wouldn’t say anything at first, then one day she said, ‘It was my father.’ They didn’t press her, but they asked her to repeat it, and she did, over and over, ‘It was my father, it was my father, it was my father.”
Jean’s daughters were abused for about five months and she feels they recovered after a while: the memory has faded for them. ‘They do mind losing their father.’ He was arrested (on charges of ‘indecency’ rather than assault) and hung himself while awaiting trial. Jean stopped going out after that; would never leave the children. ‘I wanted it to be just us together in one place,’ she says. ‘Safe.’
She thinks that for many of the mothers whose partners were accused, it was too painful to confront. ‘You don’t want to think that can have happened to your children, and you can’t bear to think that it’s been done by someone you have loved and trusted. You just want to say NO, it’s a pack of lies. But you have to think of the children . . .’
On 21 May, a family of three children, codenamed AA/E, was referred to Middlesbrough Hospital. The eldest child had already made a partial disclosure, describing sexual intercourse, stains on her sheets. Dr Higgs, examined the girl, with the mother’s consent, and found that both her vagina and anus were grossly damaged. Before she could examine the two younger children, the father stormed the hospital, removed his children, hid them, and then got the police surgeon to come and re-examine them. Social workers immediately got a place of safety order, but the police refused to implement it. In their examination, they found no evidence of abuse. Subsequently, the police issued a secret memo, telling its officers to treat with caution any diagnosis of sexual abuse made by Dr Higgs; social services issued their own secret memo instructing staff to bypass the police surgeons and seek place of safety orders whenever a diagnosis was made. As Sue Richardson says: ‘It was absolute chaos.’
Jane Wynne consultant paediatrician at Leeds general infirmary and an expert on child sexual abuse explains to me that in 1987 the Department of Health had ‘no structure for dealing with suspected child sexual abuse. There were guidelines for physical abuse, you removed a child if they were at risk, and that’s basically what they did for sexual abuse in Cleveland. But when the numbers came in so thick and fast, there was no working practice, no central advice. ‘Diagnoses,’ she continues, ‘are like jigsaws what the child says, how the child behaves, what the medical signs are, what the police and social workers say. In Cleveland, they simply hadn’t got the set up and the jigsaw wasn’t put together properly. Most professionals,’ she adds, ‘strongly felt that there was the abuse there, oh yes. But it couldn’t be properly investigated.’
Like Sue Richardson, Jane Wynne is: ‘Quite, quite sure that some of the children were returned to abusing households’
In the heated summer of 1987, Dr Alistair Irvine, the senior police surgeon for Cleveland, went public in dismissing RAD and in discrediting Dr Higgs; Stuart Bell became famous as a crusader for parents’ rights; Geoff Wyatt and, above all, Marietta Higgs, became public enemies; accused families were interviewed in newspapers and on television as wronged innocents; journalists wrote about sex abusers as ‘freaks of nature, like cancerous rogue cells’; parents all over the country were asked to imagine how they would feel if, without warning, their children were snatched away from them; courts in Cleveland were faced with conflicts in medical diagnoses and once the courts started to reject the paediatricians’ evidence, Cleveland County Council decided it must drop many of the cases. Some of them never even made it as far as the courts. The child who had talked about her daddy’s ‘extra leg’ being put into her bottom, the child who had anal fissures, the child who had a swollen red vagina, the child who had made a full disclosure, the child who had ‘poorly tuppence’ because of her father ‘moving his fingers up and down inside’ they went home again. Ninety six children returned. ‘Nightmare is over’ screamed newspaper headlines. Whose nightmare, though? The parents’, or the child’s? Or the public’s? Some startling claims are made in The Death of Childhood, which back up what Richardson and Wynne say so adamantly. First, that although 96 children were indeed returned to their homes, most of these were still kept under strict supervision. Also, of the ’19 innocent families’ that Bell supported, seven included children who had previously disclosed abuse, three included an adult male who had already been charged with sexual abuse, two more involved families where the father was a convicted child sex offender. Two independent panels subsequently set up to give second opinions on the diagnoses of Dr Higgs and Dr Wyatt reported at least 70-75 per cent to have been accurate. Since the controversy, 25 of the returned children had already been referred again, and five re-referred, for sexual abuse. However, claims The Death of Childhood, when the council sent details of the re-referrals to the Department of Health, a joint policy decision was taken that no further follow-up was to be carried out on the Cleveland children. Records relating to them as a group were destroyed. The past was erased. Stuart Bell says that after Cleveland, legal changes were made that ‘satisfy him’ the 1988 Children’s Act was introduced which, among other things, stops the use of the ‘dread places of safety orders’. ‘Why would he think that was good for the child?’ asks Sue Richardson. ‘That’s only good for the parent.’ Stuart Bell does not want to ‘rake over the past’.
Sue Richardson has found in the past few years that ‘no child care organisation wants to be linked in any way with Cleveland; there’s too much fear of provoking controversy.’ Charities, she adds, have entered the contract culture, and fear losing funding if they rock the boat. Responsibility for disclosing child abuse has been ‘put back on the children, and children are very often trapped in silence’. ‘Adults have so much power,’ says Ruth.
The media also has so much power. Many of the papers came out emphatically for the Stuart Bell happy-families package. They treated Marietta Higgs as a fiend, and characterised the sexual abuse diagnoses as part of a radical feminist conspiracy. Salem was invoked, so was Orwell. Accused parents were interviewed on the unexamined assumption that they were innocent and injured, especially the many who appeared middle-class, articulate, liberal, ‘nice’.
Couple ‘D’ were one such pair. Their interview on Good Morning with Anne and Nick is replayed on the Channel 4 documentary. They appeal to their children, whom they claimed were being unjustly kept from them: ‘You know one thing,’ says the man, quivering with sincerity, ‘your family love you very dearly. Come home and get away from those very evil people who have got you in captivity.’ This man, however, this loving father, had been convicted of sexual assualts on a young girl and a high court judge ruled that he had repeatedly buggered his son, sometimes in front of his wife.
‘Give us back our children,’ shout the headlines. And: ‘With one sentence their world was shattered.’ The children became the silent sufferers. Perhaps things have improved. The reaction of the media to the horrific abuse that took place over several years in children’s homes in North Wales, but was only disclosed last year, was one of horror and sympathy for the victims. But then, it was the carers who were under scrutiny, not parents, not mothers and fathers who were far too close to home. Happy families.
When the Cleveland crisis broke, we were unfamiliar with the idea of child sexual abuse. We could not believe that it was more than a ghastly aberration committed by a monstrous outsider. The sheer numbers in Cleveland were inadmissable because they meant that child sexual abuse was not just an evil singular crime, but was part of the fabric of our society. After Cleveland, parents, and fathers in particular, started to worry about being physically affectionate with their children, cuddling them or being naked with them. The way we think about children became sexualised because of our awareness of abuse.
When, in a boldly disturbing passage in his recent book If, Blake Morrison tricks us into reading a description of undressing his daughter as the slow tease of stripping a lover, and when he talks of getting an erection when his children sit on his lap, he is tapping into our own newly awakened unease at our children’s naked bodies, their natural sensuality. Child abusers often feel that they were provoked by their little victims; male sexuality is described as a natural force, an uncontrollable urge; the abused children are often made to believe that they were collusive, responsible. According to research done at Great Ormond Street, 96 per cent of abusers are male. Jane Wynn contests this: she says that the most recent analyses show that actually perhaps 15 per cent of abusers are women (she has just seen a little girl who appears to have been severely abused by her mother and her grandmother).
Recent research at North London University demonstrates just how common sexual abuse is. Teenagers over 16 were asked whether or not they had ever been abused. Abuse was given a wide and hazy definition it could mean being felt up on the underground, or it could mean rape. Among the females, nearly 60 per cent replied that they considered they had been abused; 27 per cent had been seriously abused. Among the males, the percentages were lower: 27 and 11. Even after you have allowed for those respondents who have hiked up unwanted sexual attentions into sexual abuse, the figures are appalling.
The happy family is a consoling and persisting myth, and no matter what we discover about marital breakdown, infidelity, domestic violence and sexual abuse, still we cling to it. Mummy and Daddy and smiling children. The goodnight kiss on the forehead. We think of families as the solid bulwark against a brutal world. Parents should be protectors; parents are often abusers. Home is where we should feel safe; home is where a child is most in danger. The doors close upon secret violations. This is a grim Alice in Wonderland world where everything we hold dear is turned inside out. Love into cruelty, trust into fear, safety into terror, childhood into silent hell.
Some of the names of the people in this article have been changed.
Tim Tate’s Cleveland documentary ‘Unspeakable Truths’ which is referred to in the above article: