Cleveland child abuse scandal

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The Cleveland child abuse scandal occurred in Cleveland, England in 1987, where 121 cases of suspected child sexual abuse were diagnosed by Dr Marietta Higgs and Dr Geoffrey Wyatt, paediatricians at a Middlesbrough hospital (in the now abolished county of Cleveland). The children were subject to place of safety orders, and some were removed from their parents' care permanently. While in foster care, the children continued to be regularly examined by Dr. Higgs who subsequently accused foster parents of further abuse leading to them too being arrested.

After a number of court trials, cases involving 96 of the 121 children alleged to be victims of sexual abuse were dismissed by the courts, and 26 cases, involving children from twelve families, were found by judges to have been incorrectly diagnosed.

Cleveland Social Services[edit]

Tink Palmer, a specialist in child sexual abuse and clinical and forensic practitioner, manager, trainer, policy maker and strategist,[1] was brought to work with Cleveland social services in 1987 to help with the workload. In an interview with BBC-Tees in 2007[2] Palmer stated that

"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.

The head of the team in 1987 that collected the data and statistics concerning the events which took place, Charles Pragnell, who has since served as an expert witness and independent Child Protection and Social Care Consultant[3] was quoted in the same piece as saying:

"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."

Media investigation[edit]

Some parents in this case directly engaged journalists in contesting the child-protection interventions. Media coverage focused particularly on a technique, known as reflex anal dilation, that had been used to diagnose sexual abuse in some children. In 18 of the suspected cases, anal dilation was the only medical evidence of abuse, though media coverage erroneously indicated[citation needed] that Higgs and Wyatt had relied solely on this indicator. Dr Higgs experimented with this test on her own children[citation needed] and, finding a negative result, concluded that any positive result must mean the child had been abused, although that is too small a control group to give any definitive answers.

The media also failed to report that some of the children's families had documented histories of abuse.[citation needed] Seventeen of the children lived with fathers or other relatives who had already been convicted of sexual offences, and several other children were outpatients after their parents had been registered as having harmed their children.[citation needed] However, of these families, most were subsequently cleared.

Public Inquiry[edit]

Following the media outcry, a public inquiry, The Cleveland Report[4] was established, led by Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. This judicial inquiry found that the pediatricians had "acted properly" and the report supported the manner in which they had applied the reflex anal dilatation test. This finding contradicted the decision of the judges involved in the case, who had stated that the test was "controversial".[5][not specific enough to verify]

Legacy issues[edit]

On March 21, 2007, people affected by the scandal spoke on British daytime TV lifestyle show This Morning about what happened in 1987. During the interview it was revealed that Marietta Higgs is still in practice at Medway Maritime Hospital in Gillingham in Kent. On May 21, 2007 Higgs said in an interview with BBC Look North that she would do the same again based on the facts and also said that she suspected the numbers being abused were even greater than the 121 named.

A number of the children taken away and subsequently returned are now complaining of the traumatic effect it had upon their childhood.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Marie Collins Foundation Who we are - Tink Palmer
  2. ^ BBC - Tees, 2008 Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis - Twenty years on
  3. ^ National Council for Children Post-Separation [1] Charles Pragnell
  4. ^ The Cleveland Report by Judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss The Cleveland Report digest by Robert Shaw, Children Webmag 2011
  5. ^ Campbell, B (1988). Unofficial Secrets: Child Sexual Abuse - The Cleveland Case. Virago Press. ISBN 0-86068-634-5. 


  • Bell, Stuart (1988). When Salem Came to the Boro, The True Story of the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis

External links[edit]