'Blackmail' row over child abuse inquiry

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The Independent Online
A health authority has been accused of attempting to blackmail families into withdrawing compensation claims for alleged negligence against a doctor in Kent who specialises in child sexual abuse cases.

Seven families from the Canterbury area lodged formal complaints against Dr Heather Richardson, a consultant paediatrician, on the grounds that she allegedly breached national procedures for diagnosing child sexual abuse. Two of the families are claiming compensation for alleged negligence by Dr Richardson.

Canterbury and Thanet district health authority agreed in May to hold a formal inquiry into the complaints, but yesterday South East Thames regional health authority, which employs Dr Richardson, said the inquiry would have to be called off unless the compensation claims were withdrawn.

This decision was 'tantamount to blackmail', according to Sarah Harman, a solicitor representing the families.

Six of the families allege that Dr Richardson wrongly diagnosed their children had been sexually abused, causing unnecessary trauma and stigma to the children and parents.

The seventh family complains that she correctly suspected sexual abuse of their seven-year-old daughter but failed to inform the family, the police or the social services for seven months.

The parents suspect the child was subjected to further abuse by the perpetrator, the 14-year-old son of a neighbour, during this period. This family and another are seeking compensation.

Yesterday, in a letter to Ms Harman, solicitors acting for the regional health authority wrote that any inquiry would be 'inappropriate' because two of the families were claiming compensation. In a brief statement, a spokesman for the regional health authority said: 'If litigation is started or contemplated that negates the review procedure. Until we are sure that litigation is not being contemplated in any of the cases we cannot use the review system for any of the complaints.'

But solicitors acting for the district health authority have been aware since May that at least one of the families was contemplating making a claim for negligence. In correspondence they insisted the complaints from families seeking compensation should not be heard with the other complaints. But the solicitors accepted the principle that the remaining complaints would be heard by the assessors. Ms Harman argued that the compensation claims should be heard with the remaining complaints and has been granted leave to have a judicial review on this point.

The regional health authority's refusal to hear any of the complaints was totally unexpected and will greatly distress the families, according to Ms Harman.

'I am appalled and astounded by the regional health authority's decision,' she said. 'They are reneging on the clear agreement of the district health authority to hold an inquiry. We have spent the last five months negotiating the terms of the inquiry and to suggest at this point that unless two families withdraw legal proceedings the inquiry cannot proceed is tantamount to blackmail.

'This is a crude attempt at divide and rule and I shall advise the families to challenge the decision in the High Court.'

Earlier, Dr Richardson defended her diagnoses and said: 'All complaints in the health authority should be investigated fully and fairly under the existing procedures to ensure fairness to all parties.'