A child safeguarding expert who faced vilification after raising concerns about the safety of children undergoing treatment at an NHS gender identity clinic has won an employment tribunal case against the hospital trust.

Sonia Appleby, 62, was awarded £20,000 after an employment tribunal ruled the NHS’s Tavistock and Portman trust’s treatment of her damaged her professional reputation and “prevented her from proper work on safeguarding”.

Appleby, an experienced psychoanalytical psychotherapist, was responsible for protecting children at risk from maltreatment.

The tribunal heard evidence she raised concerns about the treatment of increasing numbers of children being referred to the trust’s Gender Identity Development Service (Gids).

The service has been at the heart of a controversy over its treatment of young people, including the provision of drugs known as puberty blockers to children as young as 10.

The tribunal heard that some staff were particularly worried about a private GP, Dr Helen Webberley, who was, on her own initiative, issuing prescriptions for puberty blocking drugs to young people being assessed by Gids, or who were on the waiting list for assessment. They approached Appleby with concerns that taking hormones before assessment could pose a risk to children.

Sonia Appleby
Sonia Appleby

The tribunal heard evidence that after she raised the concerns, instead of addressing them, the trust management ostracised her and attempted to prevent her from carrying out her safeguarding role, by sidelining her. Appleby said the management’s action amounted to a “full-blown organisational assault”.

She alleged staff were told she had an “agenda”.

Appleby claimed that since then she has been unable to fulfil her role as a named professional for safeguarding children at Tavistock and Portman NHS centre, England’s only gender identity clinic for children.

She had also questioned whether record-keeping was adequate and recommended the trust introduce a manual or policy to assist “clear thinking” about cases and assess whether there was a history of abuse or safeguarding concerns before initiating treatment. She raised further concerns that staff were too overworked to properly consider safeguarding issues.

The trust denied treating Appleby unfairly, claiming that aspects of her disclosures and “the way she made them” affected the way she was treated. It alleged she was “not really concerned about safeguarding or service delivery” and that she had been “accusatory in approach”, the tribunal judgement said.

In its conclusion, the tribunal found that she was subjected to “quasi disciplinary treatment” following her whistleblowing disclosures, which were seen by some managers as “unwarranted interference”.

It concluded that there was an “obvious unfairness” in the way Appleby was dealt with by the trust after hearing she was not given any notice ahead of a disciplinary meeting, there was no investigation and she did not have an opportunity to appeal.

Elliot Hammer, who represented Appleby, said last night: “We are very happy the tribunal vindicated Ms Appleby. It is a great win and we are very appreciative of the witnesses that came forward to support her and who gave the evidence that she needed to defend herself.”

One witness, former Tavistocck consultant psyciatrist David Bell, said he had also faced disciplinary threats from the Trust when he raised concerns about the GIDS and child safety.

Bell said last night, after being shown a copy of the Tribunal judgement by the Observer, it showed the Tavistock and Portman Trust became “so caught-up in the politicisation of the subject of gender identity it had lost sight of its duty to safeguard children.”

“I think the judgement confirms the view that Trust are not capable of dealing objectively with things such as child safeguarding and the treatment of whistleblowers.”

“Instead of properly investigating serious safeguarding issues they tried to suppress them and behaved inappropriately towards the person in charge of safeguarding across the Trust as well as a number of other members of staff.

“There are much wider implications for the Trust. This evidence casts the Trust in a very bad light. You might think the senior medical director or the chief executive of the Trust had heard staff were being told not to report serious allegations of safeguarding it would be extremely worrying and yet very little has been done.”

The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust were approached for comment.

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