LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
There was a time 10 years ago when the parents of children with itchy bottoms would think twice about a visit to casualty if they lived in or near Middlesbrough. That was the time when paediatricians Marietta Higgs and Geoffrey Wyatt were diagnosing an epidemic of child abuse and taking children into care rather as other doctors might issue a chit for the X-ray department. Unable to believe that the anal abuse of children could possibly be occurring on such a scale, the senior police surgeon, Dr Alistair Irvine, advised officers to "treat with caution" the diagnoses of Higgs and Wyatt. Aggrieved parents recruited local MP Stuart Bell to the cause and questions were asked in Parliament. Suddenly, reflex anal dilatation was on everyone's lips. Long-standing public mistrust of interfering social workers seemed to crystallise overnight and Higgs and Wyatt were demonised in an endless series of press and TV interviews with stricken parents. Lord Justice Butler Sloss's judicial enquiry led to 98 of the 120 children being returned to their parents. Was this wise?

The first of Tim Tate's three-part series, The Death of Childhood (C4), revisited the scandal with the help of testimony from Sue Richardson, former Cleveland child abuse consultant, various nurses and psychologists involved on the cases and a number of victims of abuse. The film painted a picture of children being returned to their families en masse despite the presence of a considerable body of evidence that suggested that all was far from well at home. Several families contained a convicted sex offender, and in a number of cases, the children were badly bruised and undernourished. The media circus, drunk with excitement at having so much human interest at once, was happy to give airtime to distraught parents without troubling to check the facts in the case. One father made an impassioned breakfast-time plea for the return of his son under the greasy gaze of Anne and Nick. In fact, the wronged father had convictions for sexually assaulting small girls. The film revealed that, of the 98 children returned to their families, 25 were re-referred to the social services.

The testimony was very persuasive but one's sense of fair play was continually troubled by the nagging feeling that there were a number of faces missing. Dr Alistair Irvine, the man who first cast doubt on the use of reflex anal dilatation as a definitive diagnosis of sexual abuse, and the crusading MP Stuart Bell both refused to be interviewed and Drs Higgs and Wyatt were discouraged from taking part by their current employers. The film's force was weakened without the voices of such major players in the controversy. An over-reliance on the stock visual shorthand for childhood innocence (rocking horses, soft-focus hopscotch, a house of cards made from a pack of Happy Families etc.) was also corny and unhelpful.

The unease generated by Cleveland surely stems from our fear that maybe child abuse isn't a rare perversion but a widespread, everyday practice. The film argued that our refusal to accept the unthinkable has placed a number of children at risk and that the legacy of Cleveland has undermined those working with abused children all over the country. One victim remembers how, during her guilty father's trial, the very fact that she came from Cleveland formed a strong part of his lawyer's defence.

Another anniversary was being marked in BBC1's QED: The True Story of the Elephant Man, which exhumed the case of Joseph Merrick, who died in 1897. When David Lynch's film was released in 1980, the Neurofibromatosis Society staged a charity premiere in New York, failing to anticipate that sufferers and their families were unlikely to enjoy the movie. Although The Elephant Man raised the profile of this rare disease, it led parents to imagine their afflicted offspring gradually metamorphosing into shambling pachyderms. In fact, the symptoms are seldom so acute. Indeed, there is now considerable doubt that Merrick suffered from the disease at all but was in fact a victim of Proteus Syndrome. One hundred years is a long time to wait for a second opinion.

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