Don’t let them rewrite the Cleveland debacle

Some are using the Savile panic to rehabilitate the state’s unhinged child-protection policies. We must stop them.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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It was as inevitable as Jimmy Savile saying ‘now then, now then’. As soon as the claims that Savile was a serial child-molester emerged, the case for extensive child-protection policies was strengthened. Many commentators applauded how vigilant state agencies are today when it comes to protecting young children from predatory paedophiles, compared with how negligent they were in the Sixties and Seventies. The accusations against Savile have also led to renewed claims that children are at greater risk from somebody they know, or an adult in a position of trust, than they are from strangers attempting to lure them into cars.

That was the conclusion of a recent edition of BBC TV’s Newsnight (no, not the one that falsely accused a high-ranking Tory of being a paedophile, but an earlier edition). It dismissed those public information films from the Seventies, which told us ‘Charley says… never go anywhere with men or ladies you don’t know’, as naive and ineffective. The conclusion that Newsnight, and many others, have drawn from the Savile debacle is that it reveals just how hidden, and thus widespread, child abuse is in British society.

In retrospect, it is suggested, the move in recent years towards intrusive policing of family life, and in particular working-class family life, was a positive and enlightened development. Incredibly, the re-evaluation of the policing of the family as an enlightened thing has included attempts to rehabilitate the long-discredited Cleveland child-abuse scandal of 1987, when 121 children were removed by social workers in Middlesbrough on the grounds that their parents had abused them. That scandal was closely followed by allegations of child-abuse rings in Rochdale and Orkney in 1990. In each case, the vast majority of the allegations were found to be false. Yet now, in the wake of the Savile scandal, broadsheet journalists claim that the ‘public fury’ against the paediatricians who made the Cleveland allegations was ‘too simplistic’. It created a ‘saga of rogue doctors and wronged parents’, which doesn’t capture the reality of what happened in Cleveland, apparently. In other words, the suggestion is that there was some truth in the Cleveland allegations, and that the state must rediscover its nerve to interfere wholesale into suspicious communities.

Following two decades in which the Cleveland scandal was shorthand for the dangers of over-zealous child-protection policies, there are now serious attempts to rehabilitate this shocking example of state harassment of ordinary families. Any attempts to justify this heinous attack on working-class families should be resisted at all costs. If there is now a major challenge in the post-Savile fallout, it is to prevent this particularly hideous case from being retrospectively legitimised.

As has been previously argued on spiked, it was from the mid-1980s onwards that child abuse took centre stage in the national consciousness. In 1986, the founding of Esther Rantzen’s ChildLine gave credence to the growing belief that children were no longer safe in their own homes or communities. This paedophile panic, largely driven by figures from the political left, reached its devastating pinnacle in Cleveland in 1987. Here, two paediatricians, Dr Marietta Higgs and Dr Geoffrey Wyatt, became convinced that the widespread rape of young children was taking place in this part of Middlesbrough.

Higgs and Wyatt based their evidence on a technique called reflex anal dilation, which would supposedly detect signs of sexual assault. After Higgs had experimented on her own children and found a negative result, she concluded that any positive result must mean that other children had been abused. Despite it being too small a control group to give any definitive answers, the dubious test and results were still enough evidence for the state effectively to kidnap and contain over 100 children and arrest their parents.

In the early months of the crisis, the working-class families who found themselves under attack were powerless against a line-up of middle-class professionals who had the authority and power of legal sanction to back up their actions. The respectable liberal media also strongly supported the actions taken by social workers and paediatricians. It was only when the allegations of child abuse moved on to middle-class families, too, that public and media perceptions began to change. As the media’s support started to shift towards the parents who were being accused of abuse, social workers came under intense public and political scrutiny.

This resulted in the setting up of a public inquiry, led by Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, which examined instances where sexual abuse was said to have taken place. In these cases, the courts subsequently dismissed the charges against the vast majority of the parents. During the inquiry, it was revealed that social workers were driven by malignant prejudices rather by any sense of duty or professionalism. In video-recorded interviews with the allegedly abused children, social workers were seen threatening and attempting to bribe the children in order to make them confirm social workers’ belief that they had been abused. Leading questions were asked of the children, which would not have been permitted in court.

The impact on the children and the accused parents was devastating. It took some of the innocent parents two years to get their children back home. For years afterwards, the children and parents of Cleveland reported being terrified of any knock on the door. One of the children taken away by the authorities said recently: ‘We were abused by the very people – the doctors and social workers – there to protect children. We were essentially put up for adoption. My father now says he did not dare even put a towel around me at the public swimming pool for years. He was afraid of cuddling us in public. My parents’ lives have been shattered.’

The Cleveland child abuse scandal was a watershed moment in modern British society. Firstly, it revealed a disturbing, unhealthy obsession among state officials with seeing child abuse everywhere. And secondly, strikingly the panic was promoted, directed and sustained largely by those who describe themselves as left-wing or liberal, rather than by authoritarian conservatives. By this time in the twentieth century, many on the British left had started to view ordinary working people as a dangerous scourge that the state must control and reprimand. Despite the original child-abuse claims being thrown out of court, the Cleveland scandal still established a precedent for how the state and its left-leaning cheerleaders viewed working-class families. The new emerging idea was that parents could not be trusted to bring up their children responsibly, and that children everywhere were under threat from the adults they knew. Of course, after the Cleveland scandal, the hysterical language used by social workers and their supporters was toned down; but that powerful sense of institutionalised distrust of ordinary parents which exploded around Cleveland remains intact.

And now, following the Savile revelations, respectable observers feel emboldened to rehabilitate the Cleveland debacle, and to cast doubts on the fury many people felt with the state officials who kidnapped children and criminalised parents. In 2007, Higgs said in an interview with the BBC regional TV news show, Look North, that she would do the same thing again if she had to, and that she suspects the number of children being abused in Cleveland was even greater than the 121 named. Her unapologetic attitude speaks to the continuing strength of the idea that parents can’t be trusted and thus the state must monitor them closely. Such prejudices and elitist mistrust have poisoned and ruined people’s lives in the past – let’s not allow observers to rehabilitate Cleveland now as part of the post-Savile effort to shore up the principle of zealous state intrusion into family life.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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Topics Politics


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