As Dr George Hibbert, an ‘expert’ child-care psychiatrist, faces being struck off, we talk to one mother who was labelled unfit, while a whistle-blower gives an insight into his unconventional methods
7:00AM BST 01 Apr 2012
“I miss my daughter so much when I’m not with her,” says Maria, staring longingly at a photograph of the pretty three‑year-old. “People who’ve seen me with her know I’m a good mother, but what Dr Hibbert said about me meant that I wasn’t allowed to keep her.”
The 36-year-old is talking about Dr George Hibbert, a controversial psychiatrist whose damning verdict on her character and personality resulted in Maria (not her real name) losing custody of her only child.
Maria’s story raises disturbing questions about the power one man could exercise over those he judged to be unfit parents. Between 2000 and 2010 he was commissioned by social services departments throughout England (who paid him around £6,000 per case a week) to determine whether the parents referred to him were fit to keep their children. As a result of his reports, dozens of children were separated from their mothers or fathers.
But in a sudden turn of fortune, Dr Hibbert, 59, now faces being struck off by the General Medical Council, following claims that he misdiagnosed many of his patients with mental disorders and tailored his conclusions to suit the view of the relevant social services departments. And it is indicative of the doubts being raised over Dr Hibbert’s methods that his assessment that Maria was suffering from mental health problems – which led to custody of her child being given to the father – was later contradicted by an eminent psychiatrist, who concluded that there was no evidence she was an unsuitable parent.
“If it wasn’t for Dr Hibbert, I could still be with my baby,” says Maria. “It has been terrible. Being without her, and only seeing her for short periods, is very upsetting. I feel so sad whenever I have to say goodbye. I miss her very much.”
The controversy surrounding Dr Hibbert comes at a time of growing concern over the activities of child‑care experts on whose opinion courts rely to determine whether a parent is a fit and proper person to bring up their own child. Only a few weeks ago a report by Professor Jane Ireland, a forensic psychologist, warned that decisions about the future of thousands of children are being based on flawed evidence from well-paid “experts”.
Maria, who is originally from South America and whose identity cannot be revealed for legal reasons, is a domestic worker in Oxfordshire. A naturally emotional woman, her tough life experiences have left her with a deep distrust of authority figures, and she has often – to her own detriment – clashed with social workers and those with influence over her child’s future.
Social workers originally become involved after Maria suffered a period of postnatal depression following the birth of her daughter in May 2009. She then entered into a dispute with the father of the baby over custody. The couple were estranged and their relationship had been troubled, at times violent.
Oxfordshire County Council referred her to Dr Hibbert because they believed her to be impulsive, volatile and unable to prioritise the needs of the child.
Maria was sent to the Windmill Hill Centre near Cricklade, Wiltshire, one of two residential family centres run by Dr Hibbert, the other being Tadpole Cottage outside Swindon. She was one of hundreds of parents sent there over the years, who spent up to 14 weeks at a time having every aspect of their behaviour and interaction with their children monitored and recorded as part of their assessment. The opinion of Dr Hibbert – who trained as a psychiatrist in Oxford and worked in the NHS for 20 years before setting up in private practice – was key in deciding whether a child should be allowed to stay with its mother or father.
As part of their assessment, Maria and the other parents were set a number of weekly challenges. These included doing a large supermarket shop for about 14 residents and staff and involved loading and manoeuvring two heavily laden trolleys while simultaneously looking after their child. Another “challenge” required the parent to vacuum the stairs at the centres while holding their child.
But the tyre-changing exercise was the one Maria and the others dreaded most. This required the parent to wait until it was nearly time for the baby to be fed before driving into the country, accompanied by an assessor. Once in an isolated spot – by which time the child would, in all likelihood, have started crying for a feed – a “breakdown” would be staged. The parent would then be required to change the tyre while looking after the increasingly fractious baby. The challenge was designed to observe the parent’s interaction with their child in what was undoubtedly a stressful situation.
“I’d never changed a tyre before in my life,” says Maria, “but fortunately my baby was only whining a bit, so I could go back and forth from her to the tyre, comforting her and then working on the wheel. I managed to change the tyre and drove the six miles back to the centre to feed her.
“The stair-vacuuming task I passed easily, too, carrying my baby in one arm and hoovering with the other,” she continues. “But one poor 17-year-old girl failed. She was really upset.”
Maria maintains that she did all that was asked of her during the residential assessment, and that towards the end of the 13-week period Dr Hibbert indicated to her directly that he would recommend her as a fit mother.
“He told me he thought I was a good mother, even if I could be a bit emotional and temperamental,” she says.
A few days later, however, following a row between Maria and Dr Hibbert over what she claimed was the inappropriate behaviour of a male parent at the centre, he appeared to change his mind. Indeed, he is understood to have told social services that she had a level of personality dysfunction which, under stress, would lead to behaviour indicative of a personality disorder.
Maria was left shattered by Dr Hibbert’s comments – and by what happened next.
After receiving his report, together with the advice of social services, the family court ruled that Maria should not be given custody of her baby. In May 2010, after a period of foster care, custody was awarded to the father of the child. Maria was initially allowed only two hours a week contact under the supervision of social workers.
“Dr Hibbert said I behaved in an unpredictable way,” says Maria. “But everyone who knew me and saw me with my daughter said I was a good mother.”
Those impressions were confirmed by a whistle-blower who worked for Dr Hibbert until the Windmill Centre’s closure in August 2010. “From what I saw, Maria was a perfectly normal, loving mother,” she says. “She was caring and organised. She had problems with Dr Hibbert because he would deliberately push her over the edge, but I couldn’t see that she had any problems with her baby.”
The whistle-blower, speaking exclusively to The Sunday Telegraph, has more than 20 years’ experience of working with children. “Dr Hibbert would deliberately needle people,” she continues. “The entire assessment situation was set up as a deliberately unnatural environment for a mother or father, in order to make them feel very uncomfortable.”
She claims that on one occasion Dr Hibbert put his fingers in his ears and chanted, “Nah, nah, nah, I’m not listening”, when one mother tried to raise her concerns with him.
She also claims that another woman who had a habit of writing “to do” lists as a way of organising her day was deemed to be obsessive; while a young father was judged as having paedophile tendencies after Dr Hibbert saw him lying on the floor cuddling his four-year-old daughter while they watched the BBC’s CBeebies together.
The whistle-blower has subsequently raised her concerns with John Hemming MP, who campaigns for greater transparency in family courts, and is now prepared to give evidence at the GMC hearing.
Dr Hibbert’s work was lucrative. Companies House records show that profits for his company, Assessment in Care, rose from £23,000 in 2001 to a peak of £468,000 in 2007. The company – which he ran with a solicitor specialising in child-care cases – is now understood to be worth £2.7 million, while his family home, set amid the rolling Wiltshire countryside, is worth an estimated £500,000.
But in what seems to have been an attempt to limit any action the GMC could take against him, Dr Hibbert closed the assessment centres and wrote to the council offering to voluntarily withdraw his name from the medical register, stating that he had “no intention of returning to clinical practice in the future”.
The GMC refused his request. It decided that it was in the public interest for the matter to be fully investigated “because of the unresolved concerns regarding his fitness to practice”.
Dr Hibbert was unavailable for comment. Speaking on his behalf, a spokesman for the Medical Protection Society says: “Dr Hibbert is unable to comment on allegations raised in relation to care of a patient due to his professional duty of confidentiality. We can confirm that Dr Hibbert is co‑operating with an ongoing General Medical Council investigation and that no findings have been made against him.”
As for Maria, when her case returned to court earlier this year, matters took a turn for the better. In contrast to Dr Hibbert’s opinion, experts found no problems with Maria’s mental state and no evidence that she posed a risk to her daughter. As a result, the court ruled that Maria should have increased access to her daughter, including an overnight visit once a fortnight on top of six hours together every Monday.
In time, Maria hopes to be allowed by the court to spend more time with her daughter. But she remains bitter about her treatment at the hands of Dr Hibbert.
“I’m so happy that I’m seeing my baby for longer now. It’s lovely being with her,” she says. “But I wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for Dr Hibbert. Other mothers have suffered in the same way because of him – and it must not be allowed to continue.”