In early summer
1987, the United Kingdom and the world were rocked by allegations
of child sexual abuse occurring in Cleveland, a major industrial
conurbation in the North-East of England.
area was mainly comprised of three major towns, Middlesbrough,
Stockton-on-Tees, and Hartlepool, and was administered at that
time by a single local authority, Cleveland County Council, which
had been formed in 1974. The area has since been divided into
four local authorities and the name Cleveland only forms part
of one of those councils.
Middlesbrough only came into existence at the beginning of the
19th century when iron ore was found in the nearby hills and
it became a steel-making area, attracting workers from Ireland,
Scotland and many other areas of the U.K. and from Eastern European
countries such as Poland. Being at the mouth of a major river,
the River Tees, the area then began to develop as a shipbuilding
centre, and in the early part of the 20th century, petro-chemical
industries were introduced and it became one of the largest centres
in Europe for chemical and plastic production.
In the 1970s
the steel-making, ship-building, and chemical industries went
into rapid decline leading to high levels of unemployment which
still persist among the mainly working-class population.
In the years
leading up to 1987, the incidence of allegations of child sexual
abuse for Cleveland was no greater than other parts of the U.K.
but in January 1987 the numbers began to escalate rapidly, reaching
a peak in May, June, and July. The total referrals to Cleveland
Social Services for all forms of child abuse during the period
January to July 1987 were 505 referrals compared with only 288
referrals in the equivalent period in the previous year.
numbers of allegations of child sexual abuse were being made
by two consultant paediatricians at a Middlesbrough hospital
and were based on an unproven medical diagnosis termed the anal
dilatation test. Once these allegations had been made, social
workers were removing the children from their families on Place
of Safety Orders, often in midnight and dawn raids on the family
home where children were taken from their beds and placed in
foster homes and residential homes.
crisis came when there were no more foster homes or residential
home placements to accommodate the numbers of children involved
and a special ward had to be set up at the hospital to accommodate
the children who continued to be diagnosed as having been sexually
the diagnosis using the anal dilation test was being challenged
by the police surgeon, who questioned the validity of such a
test, and the police gradually withdrew their co-operation in
the cases referred by the consultant paediatricians. Relationships
between the police, social workers, and the paediatricians broke
down as the dispute in medical opinions escalated.
It is alarming
to note that there is no requirement for paediatric diagnoses
to be scientifically-based, despite the present emphasis on `evidence-based'
social work and medicine, and there is no system of verifying
and validating paediatric diagnoses on which child abuse allegations
may be based, before they can be used in clinical practice. This
was acknowledged by John Forfar, the then President of the British
Paediatric Association, who wrote to one of the paediatricians
involved, Dr. Marietta Higgs, in July 1987 and gave an admonishment
in regard to the use of the anal dilatation test :
regulation of medical practice is achieved best when it is accomplished
within the medical profession. New stances based on a new awareness
of clinical signs, or new significances being attached to them,
require first to be established within the profession. This takes
some time and requires persuasion and scientific evidence of
validity, based on the accepted method of communication to professional
journals or scientific meetings."
In the early
months of the crisis, the allegations involved working-class
families, who were confused, bewildered, and angry at being accused
of sexually abusing their children, but they were powerless against
middle-class professionals with the authority, power, and legal
sanctions to support their actions. Gradually, however, the allegations
began to involve middle-class families who were highly educated,
employed in professional occupations, and with access to legal
and political advice and to the media. They were to use such
powerful allies to considerable effect. From a sociological perspective,
therefore, the events in Cleveland could be seen as a punitive
form of middle-class oppression of working-class families by
middle-class professionals and an imposition of middle-class
values on the working classes. Some aspects of the Cleveland
Child Sexual Abuse Scandal have been likened to a mediaeval witch-hunt
by at least one author (`When Salem came to the Boro' - Rt. Hon.
Stuart Bell, Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough - 1988).
In the initial
months of the crisis, public sympathy and concern was strongly
in support of the social workers and paediatricians and the media,
pursuing their simplistic analysis of all situations as having
`goodies' and `baddies', also supported the social workers. Several
social workers and managers within the Social Services had serious
doubts about what was happening, but although they voiced their
concerns to senior managers, they too were powerless to change
centred on the removal of children from their beds at all hours
of the night and fear spread among the local population, as these
were painful reminders of events which occurred in Germany between
1933 and 1945, when there were similar misuses of state power
by police and government officials.
point of events came in late May on the day that the parents
decided to march from the hospital where their children were
being held to the offices of the local newspaper, and they began
telling their versions of events, which of course varied considerably
from the narrative constructions of the paediatricians and social
workers. Gradually, the media turned to support the parents,
and the social workers came under intense public and political
scrutiny, which eventually led to the setting up of a Public
Inquiry led by Justice Butler-Sloss.
examined the cases involving 121 children where sexual abuse
was alleged to have been identified using the anal dilation test
and the actions of the paediatricians and social workers involved.
Of these 121 cases where sexual abuse of the children was alleged,
the Courts subsequently dismissed the proceedings involving 96
of the children, i.e. over 80% were found to be false accusations.
There are some social workers and medical professionals who have
found difficulty in accepting the findings of the Courts and
are `in denial' that they were wrong in their allegations. They
have sought to use the findings of a medical panel which claimed
that, on the basis of an examination of cases involving 29 of
the children, 75% of the children had been sexually abused. Medical
opinion is not, of course, proven fact, whereas opinions and
supportive evidence given in courts can be challenged and tested
under cross-examination as to their validity and veracity.
One of the
major findings of the Butler-Sloss Inquiry was that children
had been removed precipitately by social workers who had failed
to seek corroborative evidence to support the allegations of
the paediatricians and had failed to carry out comprehensive
assessments of the children and their families. Consequently
a requirement was introduced that social workers should not act
solely on the basis of medical opinion.
also expressed at the Inquiry regarding the use of video-recording
equipment for surveillance of interviews with children and the
use of anatomically-correct dolls in the questioning of children
where sexual abuse was alleged. During such video-recorded sessions,
social workers were seen to threaten and attempt to bribe children
in order to bring pressure on the children to confirm the social
worker's views that they had been abused and leading questions
were asked of the children which would not have been permitted
in courts. The interviews of the children by the social workers
also confused the investigatory nature of such interviews with
a therapeutic purpose. Where interviews containing a therapeutic
element with children where abuse is alleged are conducted before
trial, courts could take the view that such interviews contaminated
and corrupted the children's evidence.
correct dolls can now only be used by professionals who have
undertaken intensive training in their use, and serious doubts
have been raised by some psychologists regarding the use of such
dolls, citing the difficulties of interpretations of children's
behaviours which can be made and how readily false assumptions
can be made.
One of the
key issues in the Cleveland Child Sex Abuse Scandal was the power
of professional groups in U.K. society, and how those powers
can be misused and abused in the absence of accountability in
law and for professional practice. Social workers are not personally
liable in law for their actions in child protection matters,
as they can be in mental health work and it could be argued that
this is a necessary development. It is only recently that a General
Social Care Council (G.S.C.C.) has been introduced in the U.K.
under which social workers will now be registered and can be
held responsible for their professional practice. However there
is little public confidence in the General Medical Council to
which medical practitioners are accountable for malpractice and
misconduct, and it remains to be seen whether the G.S.C.C. is
effective in its role and is thereby able to command public confidence.
There is a
belief in some quarters that the events in Cleveland in 1987
led to the Children Act 1989 but this is incorrect. The need
for the reform of child care legislation, both public and private
law relating to children, had been identified several years earlier
by the House of Commons Social Services Select Committee of 1984
(Children In Care) which described the then situation as "complex,
confusing, and unsatisfactory". A Review of Child Care Law
followed and led to a White Paper, "The Law on Child Care
and Family Services", which was published before the findings
of the Butler-Sloss Inquiry were known. The Law Commission was
also examining the reform of private law relating to children
and published its findings in July 1988.
been numerous Public Inquiries during the 1970s and 1980s into
the deaths of children whilst under the care and supervision
of social workers e.g. Maria Colwell, Kimberley Carlisle, Jasmine
Beckford, Stephen Meurs, Tyra Henry, etc, and these cases had
a major impact on the preparation of the Bill which led to the
Children Act 1989. The other major influence on the Children
Act was the need to encompass the provisions of the United Nations
Convention on the Rights of the Child which was finally signed
by the U.K. government in 1991.
some delay in publishing the Act during the Inquiry into the
Cleveland Child Abuse Scandal and the effects on the Act were
the introduction of the Emergency Protection Order lasting only
seven days and which could be challenged in the courts by the
parents after 72 hours. The previous Place of Safety Orders used
extensively in Cleveland could not be challenged for 28 days.
The guidance to the Act also required that in Care Proceedings,
courts should seek to reach decisions as quickly as possible,
as in many of the cases concerning children involved in the Cleveland
Scandal, they were left in the limbo of Interim Care Orders,
lasting in some cases up to two years. Wardship proceedings had
also been used in Cleveland where difficulties would have been
experienced by social workers in bringing Care Proceedings and
so changes were made to Wardship Proceedings restricting such
uses and may now only be used in specific circumstances.
the people of Cleveland have sought to move on from this unsavoury
episode in the area's history and to gradually remove the slurs
and scars to the reputation of what has always been a vibrant
industrial and commercial community.
Perhaps the most lasting effect has been the climate of fear
which was created and engendered in the parents of young children
by events in Cleveland in 1987, not only in Cleveland but the
rest of the U.K. In the 1980s male parents were becoming more
accepting of their role as direct carers of their children and
to share roles with their female partners, commonly referred
to as the `Sensitive New Age Guys' [SNAGs]. This involved the
male parent in bathing and dressing their children and performing
other acts of personal care. Following Cleveland, many male parents
withdrew from these activities from fear that their actions might
be seen as unhealthy by social workers and might be misinterpreted
by social workers as having an unnatural interest in their children,
and they feared allegations of child abuse could be made against
In 1987, Charles
Pragnell was the Head of Research and Management Information
Systems with Cleveland Social Services Department and was involved
in the collection and collation of the data and statistics concerning
the events which took place.