Phantom Social Workers
In the early 1990s, an urban legend started spreading throughout the united kingdom. it alleged that mysterious men and women - posing as government workers - were coming to take your children. to this day, the origins of this urban legend are unknown, but similar stories continue to crop up around the world...
On February 24th, 2018, a story broke in the Australian city of Queanbeyan (Queen-bein).
Right on the outskirts of Canberra (Kan-bra), this story took place in the suburb of Karabar (Care-a-bar)- an area of roughly 8,000 people.
In an event that police found "disturbing," a mother had a chance encounter with two strangers - one man and one woman - both of which she had never seen before, and hasn't seen since.
A statement was released by the responding New South Wales police, which described the incident:
"Police were told the man and woman claimed to be FACS caseworkers and produced what appeared to be an identity card. They stated they were there to check on the welfare of the children. The mother stated the children were asleep and told the pair she could call them to return when they woke, however the pair stated they would wait. A short time later, the mother presented the children to the pair in the lounge room. After checking the children and their bedroom, the pair left the home. The woman became suspicious of the visit and contacted Queanbeyan FACS who confirmed they had no record of the visit from any of their caseworkers and the matter was reported to police."
The woman at the center of this incident, a mother of two young children, gave police descriptions of the two strangers that had briefly examined her home and her children.
The man was described as being in his 30's, was Caucasian, around 183 centimeters or six feet tall, with a slim build, a fair complexion, dark hair, and a prominent nose.
The woman was described as being in her 20's, also Caucasian, around 170 centimeters or five-and-a-half-feet tall, with a medium build, a tanned complexion, medium-length curly hair with a dyed streak throughout.
Both were apparently wearing professional clothing - just about what you'd expect from any social workers that were there to examine your children.
Detective Chief Inspector Neil Grey described the state of the mother, in the fallout of this encounter with these two strangers.
"She's holding up OK, but obviously extremely upset that these persons unknown to her, and at this stage unknown, are being able to gain access to her children. FACS have confirmed that all caseworkers in the Southern District carry photo ID with their name, job title, and FACS logo. The ID that was produced was good enough to fool the young mother into letting them into the house."
There have not been any other noteworthy incidents in this quiet little Australian suburb since this event happened a little over a month ago, in February of 2018. However, this incident - where two strangers appeared out of thin air, wanting to examine children for unknown, mysterious reasons - hearkens back to the early 1990's, when similar rumors sent shock-waves through the United Kingdom, half a world away.
This is a terrifying urban legend known as phantom social workers.
In the winter of 1990, a woman named Elizabeth Coupland made allegations that many credit with kicking off this urban legend.
Two women knocked on the door of Coupland's home in Sheffield, England. They claimed to be from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - also known as the NSPCC.
Worried that her children were in-danger, Elizabeth let the two women into her home, and they examined her two children: one of which was two years old, and the other was an infant, less than six months old.
Shortly thereafter, the two women left, and Elizabeth simply hoped that nothing else would happen regarding the visit from the NSPCC.
A couple of days later, however, one of the women returned with another partner - a man. They stated that the children were being taken away from home and being placed into some kind of foster care, which sent shockwaves of fear throughout Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth Coupland threatened to phone the police, the two strangers apparently made a getaway, which one publication referred to as a "diplomatic retreat."
Surprisingly, the NSPCC knew nothing of these two visits, and stated that none of their officials had gone to visit Elizabeth Coupland on the day in-question.
It was never determined whether the allegations made by this panicked mother were true or false... we do know that police investigated the incident as a serious incident, and found no proof of wrongdoing from any government officials in the area.
However, this would jump-start a rash of similar encounters, which began to become prevalent in the United Kingdom during this time period.
In 1990, Operation Childcare was launched in the county of South Yorkshire, which includes the city of Sheffield.
Because of the claims made by Elizabeth Coupland and similar allegations made by others, Operation Childcare was created to combat the reports of child abductions and abuse perpetrated by social workers - or those pretending to be them.
Led by Detective Superintendent David Foss, Operation Childcare relied on the cooperation of twenty-three separate police departments and agencies, all of which were working in unison on the far-reaching project.
Foss would later state that the main difficulties of Operation Childcare came as a result of people believing media hype, buying into allegations without any proof. He also stated at a later date that while he believed many of the complaints could be genuine, they were generally blown-out-of-proportion.
Lothian and Borders Police - a territorial police agency that has since been overhauled and incorporated into the Police Service of Scotland - was involved in Operation Childcare. Chief Inspector Douglas Watson, who was involved in a special unit investigating these allegations, mirrored the statements of David Foss in a 1995 news report:
"There have been no arrests. We disbanded the squad in July last year. The bottom line is there is more than one team involved. There were ones we felt were worth investigating but a lot of the reports were malicious by attention-seeking people."
Despite the allegations from Elizabeth Coupland and other worried parents, it seems like there was very little proof or evidence by which police could conduct an investigation. There were claims of shady people asking after children, but the media began to liken these allegations to that of the Men In Black - as a sort of hoax.
Ray Wyre, a sexual crimes consultant who worked with Operation Childcare, made a statement about the ways in which the allegations unfolded: strangers approaching parents in their homes, in the middle of the day, etc.
"To do it in this way is an incredibly high-risk strategy. Also, no babies were actually taken, although some children were examined. What on Earth was going on? There are many other ways getting hold of a baby."
After years of investigating claims in the area of South Yorkshire and beyond, Operation Childcare was shuttered in 1994. The police forces involved had gathered over 250 reports of phantom or "bogus" social workers; of which they believed only 18 were worth taking seriously, and only 2 were genuine allegations.
However, despite the closing of Operation Childcare without any results, the claims made by worried parents in the UK weren't anywhere close to stopping.
Anne Wylie was another young mother, who made a similar claim to that made by Elizabeth Coupland: a stranger wanted to examine her son, this time over two-hundred miles away, in the Scottish town of Hamilton.
It was in October of 1994, when a stranger came to the back door of Anne's home to evaluate her toddler.
"I thought it was strange to start off with, as no one usually comes to my back door. This woman said she was my new health visitor and she had come to check his medical records. My son had been in hospital, he was an asthmatic. I said to her 'Do you have identification?' and she said 'Och, I must have left it in the car,' something my usual health visitor never does.
"I looked at the car and there was a gentleman in there smoking a fag - which again was strange as you wouldn't have thought health visitors would. So I asked her my son's name and she hesitated. But then she got out this file and I don't know if it was my son's but she seemed to know all his medical history - how long he'd been in hospital for and so on. She was talking to my son but it was pouring with rain and I said we'd all better go into the living room. I took my son inside and she was away."
Anne Wylie described this strange woman as being in her twenties, standing around five-feet-four-inches tall, and having a slim build with light brown hair and a small mark by her right eye.
Lynne Stewart, a 35-year old mother from the Gyle area of Edinburgh, described a similar encounter in April of 1995.
According to Lynne, a woman had attempted to abduct her four-month old baby. Described as a bogus health visitor that came to inspect her baby, Lynne stated that the "smartly-dressed" woman had grabbed ahold of her infant daughter, and attempted to run off with her. Lynne had then had to fight off the other woman, claiming to have punched her in an effort to get her baby back.
The incident was reported to police, and was initially linked to other attempted abductions in the area. However, police would later walk back that claim, stating that there had been sightings of a suspicious woman in the area, but no kidnapping attempts.
Neighbors remained vigilant in the following days and weeks, but remained skeptical of Lynne Stewart's claims.
A Lothian and Borders Police spokeswoman stated just days later:
"We are not seeking anyone in connection with the incident. The case is now closed."
It was widely-believed that Lynne had concocted the story as a cry for attention and/or help.
She had to publicly fight back against these rumors:
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm sticking by my story. It's no hoax, it all happened as I said. I'm not going to be charged with wasting police time. I've heard rumors about this. The inquiry is now over, and if you want any more information then you'd better speak to the police."
At one point, the police seemed to be teasing the possibility of filing charges against Lynne Stewart for filing a false police report, but nothing came of that - nor of any of her own claims of a strange woman attempting to abduct her child.
Many believe the incident never happened, but it wouldn't be the last high-profile incident to hit the UK.
On October 10th, 1995, a man named Mark Dunn reported an incident from his home in Manchester.
His wife and children were away from home at the time, when a woman - described as both "well-groomed" and "official-looking" in the news reports - knocked on his front door. She claimed to be investigating claims of alleged mistreatment.
Mark asked to see the woman's identification, at which point, she said she had to retrieve it from the car. He claims that she made a hasty retreat to a nearby vehicle, which had been left running. Mark allegedly saw two men within the car, and the three strangers made a quick getaway.
As you can tell, many aspects of this story were similar to those that came before it. There were the same allegations that the perpetrator was a young woman wearing professional clothing, who needed to get her photo ID from the car and then proceeded to run off.
These similar-sounding stories would become commonplace throughout the 1990s - not only in the UK, but even in the United States. There were claims made, thousands of miles apart, which insinuated that men and women posing as social workers were attempting to abduct children.
In 2001, nearly a decade after the first allegations were made, the Scottish Daily Record reported on another alleged incident.
"Police were yesterday hunting two distincitively dressed bogus social workers who made a suspicious call at a house. The man and woman rushed off when challenged for identification at the property in Southside Road, Inverness, on Friday. Social work bosses said they had no staff in the area at the time. The man was described as 40 to 45, 5ft 10in tall, stockily built, with short ginger hair, goatee beard, wearing a green tweed sports jacket, check shirt, bright red tie, bottle green trousers and dark rectangular-framed glasses. The woman was 30 to 40, 5ft 6in, with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a green coat and brown shoes and carrying a briefcase."
These claims remained just a part of a pattern: of allegations being made without any real evidence. There weren't any real related cases in the vicinity of these alleged encounters, no children actually abducted, no corroborating witness statements, etc. It was if these creepy incidents occurred in a vacuum, cementing them as an odd urban legend.
Dr. Bill Thompson, a forensic criminologist at Reading University who helped out with the mid-90s operation Operation Childcare, shared his thoughts about the possible perpetrators of this extraordinary phenomenon. He boiled down the people behind it as belonging to four distinct groups:
"Some are paedophiles, some are upset women. The third person is a self-appointed child abuse investigator... The fourth group are copycats - someone with nothing better do to.
"Or it could be the second group again - a woman who has had a miscarriage or lost a baby. It could be someone who wants to borrow the baby or, worse, a person wants to believe it's theirs. Or finally, others want people to believe them in order to get attention, favours, or sympathy."
So, at this point, I'm sure that you're pretty skeptical of the claims made by the parents so far. After all, none of these allegations actually led to any criminal charges being filed, and police never even identified a suspect in any of the separate cases. The idea of a phantom or bogus social worker is undoubtedly an urban legend at this point, but... what if I told you that the stories and the allegations may have come from a true story?
A true story that embodies every parents' worst nightmare.
In July of 1986, years before the emergence of the phantom social worker phenomenon, a young mother noticed bruises on the arms of her toddler.
This young mother and her husband were both in their early twenties, and were both teetotalers - meaning, of course, that they didn't partake in any alcohol or drug consumption. They had two children together, both daughters who were two and three years old, at the time.
The bruises on the arm of this daughter had likely been caused by her playing at playschool (the predecessor to preschool). However, that didn't stop the bruises from raising some alarms during a regularly-scheduled meeting with the health visitor sent to check on the health of the children.
The children were brought into the hospital for further evaluation, and given a "place of safety order" - meaning, that the children were temporarily becoming wards of the state as they tried to determine whether any abuse or neglect was taking place. They were taken into a wing of the hospital, where they - and their parents - would be regularly monitored.
The parents had to temporarily move into a special family unit thirty or so miles away from the hospital. If they were to refuse, they would risk their two children being taken away permanently.
During this brief period of time, the entire family was introduced to Dr. Marietta Higgs, a young woman who performed an physical examination upon their daughters.
Dr. Higgs had become a recent proponent of an examination called "reflex anal dilation," called "RAD" for short. Trust me, it is as perverse as it sounds.
Shortly after this invasive examination, Dr. Higgs told the two parents one of the worst things a parent could ever hear:
"I think it is an appropriate time to inform you of my suspicions. I strongly suspect that your eldest daughter, Lindsey, has been sexually abused."
Both this child and her younger sister would have to undergo more of the procedures, in which Dr. Higgs tested her medical theories of RAD.
The mother and father of the two children were arrested, and prepared to face a criminal trial that would never come to pass. No charges were ultimately filed, but their two daughters were kept in social and foster care for seventeen months.
In that year-and-a-half time period, the parents would end up pregnant with a third child. However, fearing the pending court case, they decided to opt for an abortion early in the pregnancy... not wanting that child to have to endure a life of living in foster care or being taken away from them at a later date.
The two daughters went in-and-out between foster and social care, and it has been said in the years since that the two girls were close to getting permanently adopted out.
However, during their stay in foster care, the two girls had to continuously check in with doctors and social workers to ensure they weren't being abused or neglected. During another round of RAD testing, Dr. Marietta Higgs and her colleagues came to the conclusion that the girls were being sexually abused while in foster care.
The foster family, who were a married couple with three daughters of their own, were blindsided by this allegation. As the father stated:
"It was like being hit by a prizefighter. Marietta Higgs and the others were like religious zealots on a mission."
The foster father was then arrested and his own children were taken away from the custody of him and his wife. However, as authorities would soon learn, these allegations were just the tip of a pending iceburg.
In the mid-1980s, Marietta Higgs, an Australian doctor in her mid-30s learned about the reflex anal dilation method at a medical conference in the city of Leeds.
This method - RAD - is something that I don't really want to go into detail about. You can look it up if you must, but to make things short: it was a controversial physical test conducted to identify victims of sexual abuse.
Dr. Marietta Higgs started implementing the RAD testing into her medical bag-of-tricks, and within six months, was transferred to Middlesburough General Hospital, where she teamed up with another pediatrician, Dr. Geoffrey Wyatt. Dr. Wyatt was also a fan of this method, and they began to incorporate it into their regular testing in the final months of 1986.
Between February and July of 1987, 121 children in the county of Cleveland were diagnosed as sexually abused. This was a dramatic increase in reported numbers, to a significant degree. There had normally been between 25 and 40 abuse referrals a month for social workers to investigate; during this time period, the number shot up to around a hundred. There were 81 abuse referrals made in May of 1987, and then 110 the following month, June.
Out of those 121 children that were diagnosed as being sexually abused in their homes, 67 were made wards of the court, and 27 became the subject of place-of-safety orders: meaning, they had been placed in temporary social care custody.
An increase of this size was going to draw attention; most notably from the families affected. They petitioned to have their children returned home, stating that the methods practiced by Dr. Marietta Higgs and Dr. Geoffrey Wyatt were crude and ineffective.
Simon Hawkesworth, who represented 38 families facing a collection of 84 charges, stated:
"In every case where a child has been diagnosed as sexually abused since 1 January 1987... by Drs. Higgs and Wyatt solely upon the basis of alleged physical findings and where they raised the first sucpiion or allegations of sexual abuse it is our submission:
1.) that no court has upheld their findings;
2.) that in the vast majority of other cases the local authority dropped its allegations of sexual abuse or proceedings were allowed to lapse;
3.) that in cases where children were already in care and the subject of allegations of other kinds of abuse, the Higgs and Wyatt diagnosis added nothing to the welfare of the children;
4.) there have been no convictions of any offenders against children."
That statement was absolutely correct. The RAD method used by Drs. Higgs and Wyatt was incredibly invasive, and provided nothing when it came to actual evidence of sexual or physical abuse.
Experts decried their methods, calling them ineffective at best, and perverse at the worst. Some experts came out and stated that the only way to truly uncover signs of abuse would require professionals to listen carefully to children, using the tried-and-true method of careful observation. They stated that a quick and easy route, such as the RAD physical test, would never be proven because of what it demanded... it was close to being sexually abuse in itself.
On July 9th, 1987, the Secretary of State for Social Services commissioned a report by Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a High Court judge assigned to the Family Division at the time. Her objective was to investigate the claims of sexual abuse laid out by Dr. Marietta Higgs and Dr. Geoffrey Wyatt, and determine if there was a widespread sex abuse scandal breaking out in the county of Cleveland.
There had been, just not the one Drs. Higgs and Wyatt anticipated.
Around a year after its commission, in July of 1988, the Butler-Sloss report was released.
The report, despite taking a relatively neutral approach, made it very clear that the sexual abuse allegations made by Drs. Marietta Higgs and Geoffrey Wyatt had been misguided.
"In Cleveland an honest attempt was made to address these problems by the agencies. In Spring 1987 it went wrong."
The report criticized the two doctors for over-confidence in their methods, stating that other methods were preferable to the unfounded R.A.D. testing conducted by the pair of pediatricians. This report was made famous for its catchphrase "listen to the children," which emphasized counseling and therapy over any physical examinations to determine sexual trauma in children. It also stated that children should never be subjected to repeated physial examinations, especially those as invasive as the R.A.D. testing used in Cleveland.
Most notably, the Butler-Sloss report found that most of the abuse allegations made by Drs. Higgs and Wyatt were unfounded. All but 27 children were returned home to their families.
In the aftermath of this report, Dr. Marietta Higgs was moved to another hospital in a neighboring county. She had wanted to be reinstated after the scandal came to a close, but she was too much of a liability at the time. She has since gone on to continue work as a pediatrician in the county of Kent.
Both her and Dr. Geoffrey Wyatt have continued to work in public hospitals since this scandal in the latter half of the 1980s. Dr. Wyatt worked at James Cook University Hospital for a period of time, and I cannot vouch for his current status.
This entire ordeal, which eventually became known as the Cleveland Sex Abuse Scandal, ultimately led to the Children's Act of 1989. This allocated many more resources and actions for agencies to take when it came to preventing child abuse, and even led to Operation Childcare - the multi-department mission I told you about in the first half of this episode.
Many think that the actions taken by Dr. Marietta Higgs and Dr. Geoffrey Wyatt are what led to the rumors of phantom social workers. After all, when all was said-and-done, the common thinking was that they had manufactured reasons to take away children from their parents, which I can see slowly transforming into an boogeyman of sorts.
Years after the scandal had come to a resolution, many of the children that were taken away from their homes on the recommendation of the two pediatricians filed suit against their local government bodies. They claimed that they had been mistreated by the officials supposed to be looking out for them, and that the invasive procedures performed upon them were borderline-criminal in nature.
Despite history looking back at this period of time in shame, Dr. Marietta Higgs has no regrets on the way the entire incident unfolded. According to Smita Patel, a Gazette Live producer that caught up with Dr. Higgs a few years ago:
"To this day, Marietta Higgs doesn't accept that the diagnosis was wrong."
On April 23rd, 2014, a woman was at her home in Quedgeley, a suburb of Gloucestershire. More specifically, in the neighborhood of Deerhurst Place, at around 2:00 in the afternoon.
According to this woman, a young mother, a strange woman came calling. Claiming to be from Social Services, she stated that there were "concerns for the welfare of her four-month-old son."
This woman, who was in her late twenties, stood around five-feet-seven-inches tall, with dark, shoulder-length hair, had an ID card that looked legitimate and was carrying a black zip-up folder.
She entered the family home, and briefly inspected the young mother's infant son. She used a stethoscope to listen to the boy's heartbeat before leaving, and all seemed to be on the up-and-up.
However, when the mother contacted authorities, she learned that Social Services had no record of a visit being paid to her home.
Detective Investigator Andy Dangerfield of the Gloucestershire police stated about the incident:
"We don't know what the motivation for this was but clearly it is very concerning. Our inquiries are ongoing. We have visited houses in the area to warn local people and would urge everyone to be vigilant."
The young mother at the center of this incident helped create a sketch of the woman that had come to inspect her son, a bizarre digital recreation that was published in the local media outlets.
To date, nothing has been learned about this specific case, and many have wondered: is this another example of a phenomenon created by the human imagination, like the Men in Black? Or is it something else entirely?
Peter Rogerson, a write who wrote a piece about sexual trauma in Magonia magazine, made his skepticism clear in 1991:
"The stories of the phantom social workers, the strangers who know everything, who appear out of nowhere and disappear after acting in a strange irrational manner, more than echo the motif of the Men in Black. None are caught, no car number plates are recorded."
It's possible that the idea of these phantom or bogus social workers descend from the UK's rampant allegations of child abuse. There have been claims that thousands of children have been victimized over the years, by cabals that operate in the shadows of society, intermingling with the rich and the famous. Of course, we have seen specific examples of this, such as the Jimmy Saville scandal, which unearthed decades of child abuse by a single individual.
Operation Yewtree, which was very similar to Operation Childcare from the early 1990s, was launched in 2012. Quickly, it took on a life of its own, growing from a simple inquiry to a full-blown criminal investigation. It managed to build convincing cases against several public figures, including entertainers, politicians, and wealthy businessmen, for engaging in child abuse over the years.
While no country is immune from having its own sex scandals, the UK has become notorious for the scandals plaguing the country over the last half-decade or so, with a dozen growing to the point of having their own Wikipedia page. I often use that as the benchmark of something reaching the peak of notoriety, and I believe it's true in this case. The allegations of abuse coming out of the UK over the past few years really shine a light on how mistreated children have been over the last few decades.
Lord Warner, the former health minister who had conducted an inquiry into child abuse allegations in the early 1990s, stated:
"Some of these children's homes were targeted by people in power, powerful people.
"It is possible that people who were authoritative, powerful in particular communities did sometimes have access to children's homes. We know for historical purposes that children's homes were a supply line sometimes."
Is it possible that, over the years, these countless allegations needed a face to put on their trauma? A convenient boogeyman that acted as an intermediate between the young victims and survivors and the people behind these various scandals?
It's likely that we'll never learn the truth about what drives these allegations of phantom social workers, whether they come from a place of truth, or they are simply a phenomenon created by those that want attention. That is why I consider the urban legend of the phantom social workers to be, ultimately, unresolved.