Cover of Secrets and Silence book on a table

22 Feb 2024

General Updates

Setting the story straight on Cleveland 

In this compelling blog, our Deputy Director Anna Glinski, reflects on Bea Campbell's new book to revisit the impact of Cleveland and how it must inform how professionals respond to child sexual abuse today.

Through various practice development roles and as a frontline social worker, I have spent 17 years talking about child sexual abuse with a wide range of professionals and policy leads. Within these conversations, the evidence that child sexual abuse is just as common as other forms of abuse consistently generates the biggest surprise reaction. Despite this, data also shows that far more children are sexually abused than services identify. This is true across all services tasked with safeguarding and protecting children, and yet social workers (and other professionals working with children) do not routinely learn about the subject.

At the CSA Centre we are passionate about the need and value of supporting professionals to have the knowledge, skills and confidence to identify and respond to concerns of child sexual abuse. But it is important to reflect on why, and how, we have reached a point where child sexual abuse receives such limited consideration in pre- and post-qualification training and the impact this has on our capacity to protect children.

Journalist Beatrix Campbell’s new book ‘Secrets and Silence’ seeks to shine a light on how this has happened – and why. Her latest book about the child sexual abuse scandal in the English county of Cleveland in the 1980s, and the consequences it had for children, professionals, justice and the state, presents challenges for all of us today.

What happened in Cleveland?

In 1987, over the course of a few months, 121 children were removed from their families in the English county of Cleveland because of concerns of sexual abuse highlighted through medical examinations and wider assessment. A public outcry followed, involving local politicians, local and national media, parents, and professionals from different agencies with safeguarding responsibilities, who could not accept that so many children had been sexually abused. The result was local and national hysteria and panic that over-zealous practitioners were wrongly identifying child sexual abuse. Then the professional judgement of those working with the children was challenged. An Inquiry was commissioned by the Government and a report was published in 1988.

The Inquiry made no assessment of whether or not the children were sexually abused, though clearly this would have been helpful. Campbell has subsequently uncovered evidence, through documents now released in the National Archive, that indicate most of the children were sexually abused, and that the diagnosis by medical professionals was correct. Furthermore, her new book reveals that documents that would have confirmed this reality were amended, diluted and in some cases disappeared and this, at best lack of transparency, or at worst deliberate cover-up, has had lasting impacts. As a result, there has been a continuing, dominating and false belief that the Cleveland children did not experience sexual abuse and that the crisis was the result of over-zealous and incompetent practice.

Arguably, the focus on professional practice, rather than the extent of abuse being committed in the family, led to suspicion and doubt about safeguarding professionals and their actions to protect children, and continues to unhelpfully influence practice today.

The impact of the Cleveland Inquiry Report on the protection of children today

The Cleveland Inquiry Report (1988) did not set out to discover, nor did it report upon, how many children in Cleveland had been sexually abused. But in this new evidence unearthed by Campbell, the ‘diagnoses’ of sexual abuse in the majority of the children were found to be correct. The report itself instead focussed on whether or not the professionals had acted appropriately to the concerns of abuse. As a result, a common phrase exercised by many professionals, including most influentially the judiciary in family law, is ‘beware the lessons of Cleveland’. This appears to be based on ‘expert’ evidence given during the Inquiry which indicated that: (1) children commonly make false allegations; (2) that they can be easily ‘led’ by professionals; and (3) that sexual abuse by a family member is rare.  In reality, none of these points is borne out by the evidence:

Sadly, child sexual abuse is not rare. Our current, and widely accepted, conservative estimate is that 1 in 10 children experience sexual abuse before the age of 16, and data indicates that the majority of the most serious sexual abuse of children takes place within the family.  

False allegations by children are also rare – children are much more likely to withhold information about abusive experiences than make up something that hasn’t happened to them. Most people who are sexually abused in childhood report that they did not tell anyone about their abuse at the time[1]. According to the Joint Targeted Area Inspection into Child Sexual Abuse in the Family Environment (2020) professionals rely far too heavily on children to verbally disclose their abuse. In fact, children are far more likely to show us in their behaviour, rather than tell us with words, what is happening to them. By expecting them to verbally tell us what has happened we continue to fail in our responsibility to respond to children’s help-seeking behaviour. At the same time, while all the research with victims and survivors of child sexual abuse says, ‘we need help to tell’, professionals working with children are scared to ask questions, for fear of ‘leading’ a child.  The result: a system that feels paralysed to intervene when there are concerns a child is experiencing sexual abuse.

Although there have been previous attempts to expose the truth about what happened in Cleveland back in 1987[2], these myths have become commonplace and have impacted practice across all agencies. Shockingly, despite sexual abuse being as common as other forms of abuse, and one of the four categories for child protection registration, there is no formal expectation on higher education institutions to teach about sexual abuse, including on social work programmes. Earlier this year, while delivering a conference to 100 social workers of all levels of experience, not one of them said they had learned about the topic during their initial training, or since. In the absence of formal training on child sexual abuse, in particular intrafamilial child sexual abuse, myths continue to proliferate and reduce the protection we offer children.

Addressing the falsehoods filling the gaps of 30 years

Many of the resources we have created at the CSA Centre seek to address the challenges in practice that Cleveland has left us with. Our work reviewing and analysing the scale and nature of child sexual abuse in England and Wales provides robust evidence based assessments of just how big the gap is between the children who are abused and those that services identify.  We support local and national agencies with their own assessment and analysis to inform policy and practice.

Our Signs and Indicators Template provides a framework to support professionals to build a picture when they are concerned about a child being sexually abused – recognising that children are so much more likely to show us, rather than tell us, when something is going on for them. It encourages professionals to look not just at the potential signs in the child, but the signs of abusive behaviour in those around the child. Perhaps most importantly, it removes the burden from children’s shoulders to tell and places the onus on professionals to identify, explore and respond.

Our Communicating with Children Guide was created in collaboration with experts across the field of child sexual abuse. It supports professionals to understand the barriers that prevent children from telling, and how to speak to them when they are concerned, or have been told that, a child is being or has been sexually abused.

We have also produced a free eLearning course to support professionals to build knowledge and confidence in identifying and responding to intra-familial child sexual abuse alongside a wide range of webinars and training courses.

We continue to advocate for training on child sexual abuse to be mandatory for all professionals working with children at both pre- and post-qualifying levels. Without this we will continue to practice in a void of knowledge and evidence, a context in which myths will flourish. The individual, familial and societal costs of the impact of child sexual abuse are high[3] and will remain so without action. We can and must do better for these children.

The Cleveland Inquiry should have been a watershed moment – a moment when the scale of child sexual abuse perpetrated in the family was realised and acknowledged; a moment when children could have been better protected both then and for the future. Instead, it has arguably stunted practice in this field for four decades.

Beatrix Campbell has exposed the devastating reality of what happened as a result of the Cleveland Inquiry and the events that surrounded it. It is hard to digest such unpalatable truths – but here, and now, we must. Let this be the watershed moment that we should have had then, so that for the next four decades and beyond, we can ensure the safety and wellbeing of children who are being sexually abused and look back with pride about how we did it.

[1] Less than a quarter of respondents to the crime survey who had been raped in childhood told someone at the time, and of those, only 8% told someone in an official position (Office for National Statistics, 2020)

[2] Campbell, B, 1997 Unofficial Secrets: Child Abuse – The Cleveland Case, Virago

Tate,T, 1997 Unspeakable Truths. (Documentary Film) Available at Films – Tim Tate

[3] Home Office, 2021, The economic and social cost of contact child sexual abuse, available at