The innocent parents who need to know

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VIRGINIA Bottomley is giving society a clear message about which parents and children deserve public inquiries and which do not. In the past, parents who were, in effect, under accusation by their children, have persuaded the Government to sponsor public inquiries. Yet the same forum is not now thought appropriate for the Grantham parents who want an open investigation into the deaths and damage endured by their children while in hospital care.

The Government has called only two public inquiries into child protection crises in the past 10 years. Out of more than 20 inquiries into child abuse since 1980, only two have been in public with the power to subpoena witnesses - both of them prompted by parents protesting against state intervention.

What does this tell us about who may be accused and whose accusations may be heard?

In Ward 4 of Grantham General hospital 26 attacks on children and four murders were committed by the nurse Beverly Allitt. The hospital failed to protect these children. A public inquiry demanded by the Ward 4 parents would go to the heart of a system for which Mrs Bottomley bears responsibility. It would focus on Ms Allitt, a young woman who has been condemned and demonised, but not yet understood.

Ward 9 of Middlesbrough General Hospital no longer exists. Five years ago, professionals with a duty to keep children safe became the subject of a pounds 4m public inquiry. They had not murdered or hurt any children. They were trying - rightly or wrongly - to protect children who showed signs of gross sexual abuse.

The Ward 9 parents got their public inquiry. There, too, a woman was demonised, Dr Marietta Higgs, together with her social services colleague Sue Richardson and fellow paediatrician Geoff Wyatt. But that inquiry, conducted by Mrs Justice Butler-Sloss, did not ask itself vital questions: what had happened to the children? Were they sexually abused? Although the inquiry affirmed the doctors' diagnosis, and although the Butler-Sloss panel drew its own conclusions about the likelihood of abuse, these were never shared with the public.

Instead, the public inquiry was about 'social services' arrangements for dealing with suspected cases of child abuse in Cleveland'. The only other public inquiry secured by parents or children was in Orkney. There, too, Lord Clyde was not invited to ask what had happened to the children, even though he thought the children's allegations were credible enough for him to repeat in his report.

What united Cleveland and Orkney was the adults' mutiny against the accusations made by children. Why are 'accused' parents' demands more successful with the Secretary of State than those of innocent parents?

Though it is usually those who work in social services who feel under siege in child abuse inquiries, it was social workers themselves who appealed for - and were denied - a public inquiry into the Nottingham case in 1989. This was the biggest case of family abuse to come before a British court and the first time that very young children gave evidence via video link against their parents. Their evidence put 10 adults in prison. The children and Nottingham's protection staff were affirmed by six High Court judges, and social workers were even congratulated by the Prime Minister.

But a clash with other professionals, primarily the police, prompted the county's principal child protection officer, Judith Dawson, to call for a public inquiry. 'We felt the case was so important that the public were entitled to know what happened and to contribute to a debate about how to respond,' she said. The requests were refused.

Mrs Bottomley was no more enthusiastic when her department was put under pressure to respond to the great child abuse scandal of the 'pindown' regime in Staffordshire children's homes exposed last year.

According to Liberal Democrat county councillor Christina Jebb, who was virtually alone on the council in her support of the children and their whistle-blowing allies: 'We always wanted a public inquiry. We only accepted an independent inquiry because we had not expected to get anything at all.'

She doubled her majority in this month's elections - even though her rival pilloried her campaign against pindown and blamed her for rising crime. After the inquiry by Allan Levy and Barbara Kahan, which condemned pindown, Mrs Bottomley told the House of Commons: 'Only the Liberal Democrats think the answer to everything is to have yet another public inquiry.'

The Liberal Democrats are not alone.

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