A FATHER has spoken for the first time of the horror of having his three daughters and two foster children removed when they were wrongly diagnosed as sex abuse victims.

It is the 20th anniversary of what became known as the Cleveland Child Sex Abuse Scandal - but many of those innocently accused still live with the pain of having their families torn apart.

In the summer of 1987, the nation was gripped by stories of an apparent epidemic of child sex abuse that resulted in 121 children being taken into care on the basis of controversial detection techniques.

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Matthew Allen, a foster parent in Middlesbrough - whose real identity has been changed - last night spoke for the first time of the night his life changed for ever.

Two of his foster children were diagnosed as being the victims of sex abuse by paediatrician Dr Marietta Higgs, who also accused many other innocent parents of abusing their children.

She then asked to examine his three daughters, aged nine, seven and one-and-a-half.

He said: "We went along and the children were examined by Dr Higgs, and after which she appeared and delivered the bombshell that they showed signs of being sexually abused, and that they were being kept and would we please go.

"It was almost as if one had been hit on the jaw by a prize-fighter.

"I felt shocked, my stomach began to turn because it was almost as if I was in a dream. I was waiting any moment to wake up, but I didn't wake up because it wasn't a dream - it was reality.

"The children went into a room for an examination, the door was shut and that was the end of it. We were not allowed to say goodbye to them and we were then given a cup of tea.

"Then when we started to ask questions, we were told we were either to go peacefully or security would be called and we would be physically removed."

It would be a further seven months before he was reunited with all his children.

Speaking on Radio 4 last night, he said that, two decades on, his family were still coming to terms with the false diagnosis and the hurt caused by malicious accusations in the community, which continued after the children were returned.

In the years leading up to 1987, the number of child sex abuse allegations in Cleveland was no greater than other parts of the UK. But in January 1987, the number escalated rapidly, peaking in May, June, and July.

Also at the centre of the scandal was Dr Geoffrey Wyatt who, along with Dr Higgs, referred the cases to the social services department of the now defunct Cleveland County Council.

Matthew Allen's story is familiar to countless other families.

Social services used place-of-safety orders to remove children from their home on the say-so of a paediatrician. For some, it caused irreparable damage to relationships.

Children diagnosed as sexually abused were placed on wards nine and ten of Middlesbrough General Hospital.

But parents started to fight back, and a pressure group was formed with the help of a local vicar and Middlesbrough MP Stuart Bell.

Mr Bell said: "The reaction within the families was very devastating. One woman was told that her child had been abused and, of course, the implication was that the husband had done it and that split the family immediately."

Dr Higgs and Dr Wyatt were barred from further child protection work, and Sue Richardson, child abuse consultant for Cleveland council's social services department, was dismissed.

à Twenty years on - Page 5