Radio Review: Cleveland 20 years on

Cleveland – 20
BBC Radio 4
20 February, 8pm


“I was nine. We were taken to hospital, taken into a room and I remember being examined, which was rather graphic. Then we were bundled from that room and taken to another and we didn’t see my dad for seven months.”

Now 29, “Selina” was one of 121 Cleveland children controversially diagnosed at Middlesbrough General Hospital between February and July 1987 as being sexually abused, writes Graham Hopkins.

The children were diagnosed by doctors Marietta Higgs (described as “a woman doctor on a mission”) and Geoffrey Wyatt using reflex anal dilatation – a procedure championed by Higgs. Neither doctor could see any potential flaw in their diagnostic approach, and they found an ally in social worker Sue Richardson.

Together they embarked on what became polarised as either crusade or witch-hunt – all analysed skilfully on this fine and calm programme.

The sheer volume of cases proved the downfall of the diagnostic approach. A hospital social worker recalled a defining moment: “I had a phone call from Geoff Wyatt asking me to refer a whole school. I asked why. He said because they are abusing each other. My manager asked ‘Is this a joke?’.”

As the local difficulty erupted into a national scandal, issues became politicised. None more bizarre than the squabble with police who demanded that their surgeons (as they had forensic skills to collect evidence) should be the ones who made clinical investigations not the hospital doctors. The latter countered that they were children’s specialists so they should do it. The police refused to investigate any cases referred to them by Higgs. Richardson described these meetings as “naked turf wars”.

While the in-fighting raged, children such as Selina were left bemused. “We lived in the hospital – and we looked at all the sick people around us and thought what are we doing here?” It was in essence the question that the inquiry considered. It roundly criticised doctors, social workers and police, damning the certainty and over-confidence that pervaded the diagnoses. The doctors were barred from working in child protection while Richardson was sacked. But they remain unrepentant: Higgs says she received hundreds of letters in support, while Richardson claims “we’re in denial”.

With all records destroyed we may never know the truth of who was abused and who wasn’t. But as Selina says: “It was cruelty what we received at the hands of people that were supposed to protect you.”

Graham Hopkins is practice editor of Community Care


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