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Shieldfield: how did it happen?



4 December, 2002

THE SHIELDFIELD CASE, in which two Newcastle nursery nurses, falsely accused of horrendous sexual crimes, were finally vindicated in a libel trial after a nine-year ordeal, has already been extensively documented on this website. However, the full story of Shieldfield had, until recently, hardly begun to be told.

That situation, which has doubtless already led many people to discount Shieldfield as a terrible aberration, has now changed. A month or so ago, quietly and without fanfare, a very significant publication was distributed to a relatively small number of subscribers. It contains two substantial articles, both of which probe the roots of Shieldfield. These articles, because of the nature of the analysis which they present, ought to be compulsory reading for every director of social services, every child protection worker, every family court judge and every politician, police officer, lawyer and journalist with a professional interest in allegations of sexual abuse and the manner in which they are investigated.

The publication in question was the Autumn edition of the newsletter of the British False Memory Society. 'The BFMS,' writes director Madeline Greenhalgh, 'makes no apologies for making this issue of the newsletter into a special focus on the Shieldfield libel trial . . . [it] carries articles which take a comprehensive look behind the scenes to reveal strong links between the Shieldfield and Cleveland crises. We uncover the part played by the child welfare agencies which until now has escaped scrutiny.'

After reprinting Margaret Jervis's excellent piece on the libel judgment, which has already been commented on here, the newsletter breaks new ground with an article by Tania Hunter entitled
Messages from Shieldfield.  At the heart of her analysis of Shieldfield is her assessment of a judicial inquiry which has exercised enormous influence over the development of child-protection policies over the last fourteen years - the 1988 Butler-Sloss inquiry into Cleveland.

It might be said that the real problem with the Cleveland report has arisen as a direct result of its unusual strengths. The report has so many good qualities that, in some quarters at least, it has been treated almost as a sacred scripture which is beyond criticism. The judgment in the Shieldfield libel trial, however, has led Tania Hunter to question it openly. 'The Cleveland inquiry,' she writes,  'despite all its undisputed virtues, had one monumental and largely unrecognised flaw which has had a significant bearing on subsequent events.

'While it acknowledged the part played by doctors, social workers and therapists in the breakdown of child care services in Cleveland, the cause was attributed to the inexperience and the personalities of those involved. Expert witnesses had warned of the dangers of adopting North American therapeutic disclosure techniques, but the inquiry nonetheless concluded that the investigative techniques which had proved so disastrous in Cleveland were safe when used by experts such as Dr Arnon Bentovim and his Great Ormond Street Hospital colleagues.

'Based on this incomplete understanding, and without the benefit of later research into children's suggestibility, the Butler-Sloss inquiry recommended improved training and inter-agency "working together". The unintended outcome has been that the very people responsible for the Cleveland affair have been able to perpetuate their practices and are now established in universities and at the centre of the child protection system as experts, policy advisers and trainers' [italics added].

The view that Shieldfield happened not in spite of the Cleveland report but, in some respects at least, because of it, is a deeply disturbing one. But this view is, I believe, essentially correct. The problem in some respects is simply one of chronology. It is not only that the Cleveland inquiry took place before ground-breaking research into children's suggestibility had been conducted by psychologists such as Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck; it is also that the report was published well before any proper scientific assessment of the 'anal dilatation' test had ever been made. The assumption that reflex gaping of the anus in young children indicated sexual abuse lay at the very heart of Cleveland. By the time this 'diagnostic' test was finally discredited by medical research and shown to be without any empirical foundation, the Cleveland report had already been in circulation for some two or three years.

Through no fault of her own Justice Elizabeth Butler-Sloss (now Dame Butler-Sloss) had, in effect, been compelled to produce her report in the dark. She simply did not have the benefit of the very scientific research which would have revealed the true scale of the Cleveland scandal and the real dangers of the child protection ideology and the paediatric zealotry which had led to it. Tania Hunter's eloquent analysis of the unintended consequences of the Cleveland report, and in particular of the role played by untested forms of 'therapy', is disturbing precisely because of the large measure of truth it contains.

The same must be said of the article by Margaret Jervis which accompanies it,
The road to Shieldfield (Part 1).  (To download a PDF version of entire October BFMS newsletter, click here.)

Having been a close observer of the development of child-protection ideology since her days as a staff journalist working for Social Work Today, Margaret Jervis is unusually well-qualified to piece together the story behind the story of Shieldfield. In its own way, the account she gives of the background to the Shieldfield scandal is just as disturbing - and just as revealing - as that of Tania Hunter.

No doubt the extent to which the 'strategy'  followed by child protection campaigners in the north east was consciously planned, and the extent to which it was simply an 'accident of zeal', will be contested. What can scarcely be disputed is that the complex alliance between anxious parents and zealous professionals which eventually came about at Shieldfield was extraordinarily powerful and extraordinarily dangerous.

In their two articles, which complement one another so well, Tania Hunter and Margaret Jervis have shed an immense amount of light on the origins of the entire Shieldfield case. For this reason their articles should be widely read by all those who work in the field of child protection. One of the great tragedies of the current polarised state of the debate, however, is that there will in some quarters be resistance to the insights now made available by the British False Memory Society precisely because of their provenance.

As Margaret Jervis herself notes in the first of her two recent articles, there has been a concerted campaign to blacken the name of the British False Memory Society. The campaign has been conducted over a number of years and Judith Jones and her fellow Newcastle activist Bea Campbell have played prominent parts in it. The effect has been to smear the entire false memory movement with the misjudgments made by a few - especially by the psychologist Ralph Underwager.

It was Underwager (who is also a Lutheran minister), who in 1993 gave a disturbing interview to the Dutch magazine Paidika in which he appeared to endorse paedophilia as part of God's will. His wife, the psychologist Hollida Wakefield, also made remarks which were unhelpful to the cause of those
attempting to oppose the tide of false allegations then running strongly not only in the United States but also in much of the English-speaking world.  

Although Underwager was immediately asked to resign from the American False Memory Syndrome Foundation Board, his extraordinary and ill-considered words inflicted lasting damage on the movement which he had helped to found. They have been used by some extreme supporters of recovered memory therapy ever since in an attempt to demonise their opponents and to misrepresent them as belonging to a paedophile lobby. (Some insight into the ferocity of the lesser battles that ensued may be gleaned from an
American website,  run by journalist Moira Johnston, which documents, in its references the Columbia Journalism Review, one of the many clashes there have been in recent years between those who support the idea of 'massive' repression and those who oppose it.) 

In fact the
British False Memory Society has, like its American counterpart, attracted support from some of the most distinguished psychologists and psychiatrists in the country. The credulous acceptance by some professionals, including some child protection workers, of what amounts to a black propaganda campaign against this valuable organisation, has already done great harm. If the lessons of Shieldfield are now to be learned (and it is essential for everyone that they are) then demonology must now be displaced  by facts and evidence - and by genuine debate.

4 December, 2002


Richard Webster, 2002