|'I never saw him observing parents with children': The woman who said she was forced to take babies from their mothers by the 'expert' who played God
Mail | April 27, 2012
Anyone who works in child protection will tell you that one of the worst aspects of the job is having to take a youngster from its mother’s arms, possibly for ever.
It is heart-breaking enough, even when you are 100 per cent sure that being taken into care is the best thing for that child. But what if you are forcibly removing a child from a mother you believe to be a good and caring parent?
Keira Roberts never imagined that she would find herself in such a position
when she accepted a job with an eminent psychiatrist who specialised in
helping local authorities identify dangerous or neglectful parents.
When Keira agreed to work for him, it was at one of his Family Assessment Centres — places where families who had come to the attention of social services departments were referred. They were placed under round-the-clock observation while it was determined what should happen next.
It was a very intrusive set-up, but Keira assumed that Dr Hibbert —
who was highly trusted (and very well paid) by a string of local authorities
— knew what he was doing.
But protecting children is one thing. Ripping families apart — apparently
for little reason — is another. Yet this is what Keira claims Dr Hibbert
did, and on a scale that is staggering.
And she became dismayed when the parents were set bizarre and, she felt, unfair tasks, to assess how they coped.
She watched one young mum struggle to vacuum the stairs while carrying a baby. Another was sent off to the supermarket with her child in tow to grapple alone with a huge shop for 14 people.
But her bemusement at Dr Hibbert’s methods turned to horror when she realised that when parents ‘failed’ to complete these tasks to Dr Hibbert’s high (or ‘impossible’, as she puts it) standards, it counted against them and their children were being taken.
And what haunts her is that she was sometimes the one doing the forcible removal of the children.
The case that still keeps her awake at night involved a young mother called Anna — a woman Keira had been observing for 14 weeks, and considered a good mother. She had come from a difficult background, but there was no evidence that she was abusive or neglectful towards her child.
Indeed, Keira was impressed with what a good job she did of caring for her baby.
Yet at five o’clock one morning when she was working at the assessment centre, Keira was confronted by a sobbing Anna. She was cradling her baby, rocking from side to side and weeping uncontrollably, and begging for Keira’s help.
‘She was convinced she was going home without her baby because she thought she had failed. She was hysterical. She kept asking: “Don’t you think I am a good mother?” I did, but there was nothing I could do. Dr Hibbert had made his decision.’
Eventually, Keira was the one who had to take the baby from her arms. ‘It was the worst thing I have ever had to do,’ she says.
But Anna wasn’t an isolated case. Quite how routinely babies were removed from their parents as a result of Dr Hibbert’s practices is not yet known. But Keira was not the only one to fear that her boss was abusing his powers.
Earlier this year, Dr Hibbert offered to surrender his doctor’s licence when the General Medical Council launched an investigation over accusations that he had deliberately misdiagnosed mothers as suffering from mental disorders to fit in with the view of social services.
The GMC refused to accept Dr Hibbert’s offer, and is investigating his fitness to practise.
This is the first time a member of his staff has come forward to talk about what they say went on inside one of his assessment centres.
Keira spent over a year working for Dr Hibbert at Windmill House, Swindon. Her account — given on the condition we protect her identity — paints a horrifying picture of the lives of the parents he told the family courts were ‘unfit’ to look after their children.
How many families were ripped apart by Dr Hibbert is not known, but Keira confirms there must be ‘many’.
Between four and eight families would live at Windmill House at any one time, with Keira and her colleagues watching them 24 hours a day, scrutinising their every interaction with their babies.
It was ‘just like the Big Brother house, she says, ‘but 100 times worse because they knew if they did something that was deemed wrong, they risked losing their child.’
Even at night, Keira claims, staff listened in to their parenting — and, in the case of couples, their intimate conversations — using baby monitors.
She says mothers were not even allowed to breastfeed in private. ‘I always felt it was very intrusive,’ Keira says.
‘When I was watching the parents in the same room, I would sip water or do a crossword so they wouldn’t feel too watched.’
Perhaps such intrusion could have been justified had honest observations about the parents’ interaction with their children been made.
Keira says things started in a balanced way, with staff being told to write, in the margins of their copious notes, a small ‘G’ for good parenting, ‘B’ for bad or ‘R’ for routine.
But later, she says, they understood they should write down only the bad aspects of parenting they observed.
She says: ‘Dr Hibbert said: “All I want, all I need you to do is highlight anything that’s bad.” We did not include any good parenting because the courts would take it as read.’
Staff were horrified, believing this was going to give a ‘skewed view’.
‘I don’t think anyone thought it was right,’ Keira says, ‘but he said we had to cut down the amount of paperwork we were giving him.’
Another of Dr Hibbert’s methods was to set the parents bizarre tasks, such as changing a car tyre while caring for a child.
‘The assessments were ludicrous,’ Keira says. ‘A lot of the staff said that if we found ourselves in their situation, we’d fail. It was a totally unrealistic, false environment.’
Incredibly, though, the mothers would often succeed against all odds. ‘They were so desperate to pass,’ Keira recalls quietly.
While she and her colleagues had to watch the parents round the clock, Keira claims Dr Hibbert was rarely at Windmill House.
Staff would occasionally see him driving in and out of the car park in one of his two Porsches — one black, one silver — or popping into the office to pick up one of his designer suits, which staff would have dry-cleaned.
But Keira claims she ‘never’ saw the psychiatrist actually observing parents with their children before he wrote his reports for the family courts — which would be extraordinary if this was always the case considering this was a man charging the taxpayer thousands for an ‘intensive and multi-faceted assessment’ of a mother over 12 weeks.
‘In the year I was there, I never once saw him watch a parent with their child,’ says Keira. ‘It was ridiculous. How can he have had an expert opinion on their parenting if he didn’t even observe it?’
Dr Hibbert accepted he limited his direct interactions with parents because of the powerful effects he believed that could have.
Yet few would have suspected how little he seems to have observed people parenting their children.
Not only that, the sums Dr Hibbert charged for his family assessments are staggering. The courts were paying him thousands of pounds a week for his opinion.
Each parent and child at the unit earned him £4,100 per week. This rose to £6,150 per week for a couple and a baby, or £8,200 for a couple with two children.
At one point in 2010, when he had 11 residents in the centre at one time, Dr Hibbert was raking in more than £40,000 a week — plus the £210 he charged for every hour he had to read the parents’ paperwork.
His bill was split between local authorities, the child’s legal representative and the parents’ legally-aided solicitor. Public money in other words.
Despite their huge costs, Dr Hibbert’s assessments appear to have relied to a great extent on notes made by his staff — some as young as 19.
Keira insists Dr Hibbert usually saw parents for no more than 20 minutes
per week. The workers — who were paid a starting salary of £16,500
a year — were left to observe the parenting for him.
With parents paying for their own food, and made to do all the cooking and cleaning themselves, workers often commented that Dr Hibbert ‘must be raking it in’ from his family assessment centre. Yet this was just one of his many lucrative sidelines.
He also made a fortune attending court as an expert witness — which he charged an eye-watering £1,800 per day. Incredibly, he even invoiced £105 per hour just for the time he spent travelling to and from court — plus 45p per mile for petrol.
‘I don’t know how often he went to court, but it was about once a month,’ Keira remembers. He was not, Keira says, a caring employer. She claims he was subject to ‘foul moods’ and prone to ‘stomping about’ if he as angry. She describes him as an ‘intimidating presence’.
‘He looked down on me,’ she says. ‘He was more intelligent, he was the one who knew everything — we were just his lackeys. I had never come across someone who was quite so full of himself. He also thought he was God’s gift to women.’
In the year she worked at the centre, a number of staff resigned over what Keira believes were concerns about Dr Hibbert.
And it wasn’t long before she began to have serious doubts. ‘With some mothers, it didn’t seem to matter what we wrote,’ she says. ‘He seemed to have made his mind up about them from the beginning.’
Others, she felt, were criticised ‘for nothing’.
One young father was accused of having ‘paedophilic tendencies’ after staff observed him lying on the floor with his daughter watching television.
Another was said to have an ‘intrusive’ parenting style because he liked to tickle his baby daughter — something Keira says the baby ‘absolutely loved’.
But most bizarre of all was the case of a married mother who liked to write to-do lists. ‘Dr Hibbert told us that writing a to-do list wasn’t normal behaviour. He said it was obsessive. ‘All of us staff said, hang on — we do that too!’
But the patients couldn’t win.
‘If parents didn’t trust him they were branded paranoid,’ Keira remembers. ‘If they got upset, then he would say they weren’t stable.’
Her final clash with Dr Hibbert came when she observed a meeting he held with a woman who was describing how she had once been raped.
The psychiatrist’s reaction left Keira stunned. She says: ‘I saw him put his fingers in his ears and say: “Na na na, I’m not listening to you.” I really just couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I didn’t get the impression he had any empathy.’
In early 2010, Dr Hibbert opened an extra four rooms in his assessment centre.
But then just a few months after this extra building — known as The Annexe — was opened, he abruptly shut the entire assessment centre down.
Staff were told that business from local authorities was drying up due to the economic climate, and that they would all be losing their jobs.
‘It was all very strange,’ Keira remembers. ‘Something about it wasn’t right. He has spent all this money getting it kitted out, and we were still getting phone calls to the office from local authorities asking us to take more parents in.’
It was only later that Keira discovered what she believes is the real reason the centre shut so abruptly: her former employer was facing an investigation by the General Medical Council.
A young mother had claimed he deliberately misdiagnosed her with bipolar disorder — a decision which resulted in her losing her son.
Last night, a spokesman for Dr Hibbert said: ‘The Medical Protection Society, on behalf of Dr Hibbert, confirm there have been no findings made against Dr Hibbert by the General Medical Council or any other body.
Dr Hibbert is unable to comment upon ongoing investigations due to his duties of patient confidentiality and his professional obligations.’
As for Keira, she says she wants to go to the GMC to tell her story.
She adds: ‘Personally, I’d like to see him prosecuted, stripped of his assets and sent to prison. What he did was unforgiveable.’
Some names have been changed.