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). After a number of court trials, 26 cases involving children from twelve families were found by judges to have been incorrectly diagnosed, and cases involving 96 of the 121 children alleged to be victims of sexual abuse were dismissed by the courts. In the other cases, the child was subject to a child-protection order, and some were removed from their parents' care permanently.
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 dilatation, that had been used to diagnose sexual abuse in some children. In 18 of the suspected cases, anal dilatation was the only medical evidence of abuse, though media coverage erroneously indicated that Higgs and Wyatt had relied solely on this indicator. Dr Higgs experimented with this test on her own children 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. 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. However, of these families, most were subsequently cleared.
While in foster care the children continued to be regularly examined by Dr. Higgs. She subsequently accused foster parents of further abuse and they too were arrested.
Following the media outcry, a public inquiry was enacted, led by Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. The 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".
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 a 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 the sexual abuse of Drs. Higgs and Wyatt had upon their childhood and frustration that their behaviour has never been subject to any criminal investigation.
- Bell, Stuart (1988). When Salem Came to the Boro, The True Story of the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis
- The Cleveland Child Sexual Abuse Scandal: An Abuse and Misuse of Professional Power by Charles Pragnell, Children Webmag, UK
- Kerry's story
- Abuse scandal's shameful legacy
- The women who went through an ordeal beyond belief
- Sunday Times article