Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Artificial Insemination Nightmare Revealed by DNA Test

As anyone familiar with my work is well aware, I am an outspoken advocate of direct-to-consumer genetic testing and strongly believe that power lies in the truth of discovery. However, because I have experience with so many cases where DNA testing has unexpectedly uncovered complex family relationships, I always caution those who decide to DNA test to expect unexpected surprises.

I have never seen a more fitting example of the saying “truth is stranger than fiction” than in the case that I am about to share with you. The family involved has asked that I publish their experience in the hope that others can be helped by it. Further, they wish to emphasize upfront that this is not intended as a negative DNA testing story and that they are thankful for the knowledge gained through their tests.
 

In October of 2012, I was contacted by a genealogist named Paula*. She told me that she and her daughter Ashley* had taken autosomal DNA tests at 23andMe and enjoyed it so much that they had encouraged Paula’s husband and Ashley’s father, Jeff* to test as well. Shockingly, when the results came back, he showed no genetic match to his daughter. (*Names have been withheld at this time for privacy. Update - the family has now publicly revealed their identities. They are Pam, John and Annie Branum.)

Paula explained to me that just over twenty years ago; she and her husband were having difficulty conceiving. Their OB/GYN referred them to a fertility clinic associated with the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (They have since learned that the legal name of the clinic was Reproductive Medical Technologies, but at that time only knew it as the University's clinic.) Paula underwent artificial insemination with her husband’s sperm several times unsuccessfully and they were thrilled when she conceived on what they had decided would be their last try in mid-August of 1991. They have been blessed with their wonderful daughter, Ashley, for the ensuing 21 years. Paula proudly told me that Ashley excels at everything that she tries – music, dance and even physics - and that she had always expressed an inexplicable desire to learn Russian. Paula had sometimes pondered from whom Ashley had inherited her elegant, long fingers and musical talent, but assumed those traits had somehow skipped a generation or two in Jeff’s or her own family.
 

After this discovery the family decided to undergo traditional paternity testing and they were not surprised when the results confirmed 23andMe’s findings. Since they were desirous of knowledge about Ashley’s paternal biological heritage, I advised them to have her tested at the other two major genetic genealogy testing companies, Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA, in order to search for close paternal relatives. What we all expected to eventually find was another family who had been clients at the same fertility clinic and had their sample accidentally switched with Jeff’s. Paula and Jeff wondered if Jeff might have a child out there somewhere being raised by Ashley’s biological father.
 

When Ashley’s results came back at AncestryDNA, Paula immediately noticed that Ashley had a predicted 2nd cousin who was not from Paula’s side of the family. Paula’s family has deep Southwestern United States roots and 23andMe’s Ancestry Composition clearly distinguished between her genetic contribution to Ashley’s genome and this unknown significantly Eastern European biological father. 

Ashley's ancestral makeup with Eastern European represented by green


Paula bravely told her story to Ashley’s new cousin via AncestryDNA’s messaging system and waited for a reply. It took about a month, but when the reply came, it was not what had been expected. Cheryl* told Paula that her first cousin, Thomas Ray Lippert (his real name), had lived in Salt Lake City and had mentioned to the family that he was a sperm donor. A sperm donor? That was a strange twist since Paula and Jeff had never requested donor sperm. Further discussion revealed that not only had Tom claimed that he was a sperm donor, but he had actually worked at the fertility clinic Paula and Jeff had used. 

When Cheryl shared her cousin’s name and photo with Paula, the memories came flooding back. Paula and Jeff had actually known Tom Lippert. He had worked at the front desk of the clinic and also as a tech in the back. Paula remembered him proudly displaying dozens of photos of babies behind his desk, boasting that he had helped all of their parents conceive. Looking at all of those beautiful babies and Tom’s confidence gave Paula hope that she and Jeff could have the baby that they so desperately wanted as well. She never could have imagined how far Tom apparently would go to “help” couples conceive. When Paula broke the news to Jeff and showed him Tom’s photo, he told her that he too remembered him and recalled thinking that Tom was a bit odd when he handed him the sample receptacle and the magazine.

Thomas Lippert as a young man


Cheryl told Paula that Tom was deceased and had been an only child, but that his mother was still living and offered to arrange for a DNA test to be done to confirm their suspicions. This test eventually confirmed that Tom was indeed Ashley’s biological father.

Tom's mother's DNA compared to Ashley's DNA, confirming the relationship


Heartbreakingly, Tom’s now 99-year-old mother was excited at the prospect of having a grandchild since Tom had never fathered any children other than the ones that he told his family had been conceived through his “donations”. He had even sent his mother a photo of a darling little boy that he claimed was his biological child, but he did not share the boy’s name or his whereabouts.

An unidentified child Tom Lippert claimed to have fathered through sperm donation

When Tom’s mother saw the photos of Ashley, her only known grandchild, Cheryl related “she hugged them to her chest with such joy.” Although Tom’s mother was innocent in all of this, understandably, Paula and her family were initially conflicted as to whether they wanted to get further involved with Tom’s family, but over the past year since this discovery they have proven to be extremely helpful and supportive. Cheryl has been a very good friend to the family and this has helped to ease the difficulty of the situation in which they have all found themselves.

Paula’s family still held out hope that it was all just a big mistake and that Tom had not intentionally substituted his sperm for Jeff’s, but what they discovered next made that possibility seem increasingly less likely.

In the second phone call with Paula, Cheryl revealed Tom’s troubled past. Expressing that she wanted to be completely upfront, she told Paula that Tom had served time in prison for kidnapping a female college student. Sickened by this knowledge, Paula searched the Internet for any additional information on him. She was shocked to find an article from People Magazine dated October 20, 1975. What she read was horrifying. The article stated that Tom had been a brilliant law student at Notre Dame Law School and had gone on to a promising early career as a law professor at Southwestern State College. However all that changed, when at 25, he was accused of hatching a bizarre plan to kidnap a young Purdue student and hold her as a prisoner in a “love experiment”. The student was reportedly kept in a black box and subjected to electro- shock therapy in an attempt to brainwash her into falling in love with Tom. After his arrest by the FBI, Tom hired the famed attorney F. Lee Bailey to defend him. Bailey negotiated a plea bargain for him and Tom pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to kidnap and received a sentence of six years in prison, serving two. (See here and here for more information on the case.)

F. Lee Bailey with Thomas Lippert (purchased on eBay)

While Tom’s family disputes some of the charges due to the fact that the victim visited several of their homes and appeared not to be under duress, they concede that whatever the true circumstances, his actions were highly questionable.

The fact that Tom, a felon convicted of victimizing a young woman, was later hired by a clinic whose patients were vulnerable women desperate to conceive, is simply incomprehensible. Obviously, this was one of the last positions that Tom should have been permitted to hold. Paula discovered that after marrying his third wife and being released from prison, Tom had lived in Minnesota for a few years. He eventually moved to Salt Lake City, taking classes at BYU, and his first job was working in the Reproductive Technologies fertility clinic where he was employed for nine years from 1986-1995* (recently updated to 1986-1997 or 1998). This begs the question: Could he have fathered hundreds of children? Paula realized that those dozens of photos that Tom so proudly displayed behind his desk may have been his biological children. She wondered if she should tell Ashley this distressing news about her biological father. Following her deeply held convictions, she decided that Ashley must know the truth and that they must do everything in their power to alert the other families potentially affected by Tom’s actions.


Tom Lippert as he looked when he worked at the clinic

Paula and I have discussed the potential implications of this around the Salt Lake City area, where half-siblings may be unknowingly coming into contact with each other and developing romantic relationships. Since Tom claimed to his family that his sperm was also frozen and shipped to other states, families outside of Utah could be affected as well. This concern is the main reason that Paula and her family have made the unselfish decision to share their story publicly. She explained it to me with these words, “We've talked about losing our privacy when this first comes to light…If we keep this private we won't be able to say, ‘It's okay, we're going through this and we're stronger for it. You too, need to find out if you went to this clinic for this type of procedure (or any other where your husband's sperm was used) during these nine years. These possible half siblings may be attending the same colleges and developing relationships.’" She continued, “I also feel strongly that this can be stopped in the future from ever happening  again. Independent DNA testing [should be mandatory] after the baby is born when using any kind of sperm procedure. No one would do this knowing they would immediately be found out.”

I don’t think any of us can imagine the emotional upheaval this revelation must have caused the family or how violated they must have felt, but through it all they have remained upbeat and thankful for the gift that these unfortunate circumstances brought them - their beautiful daughter, Ashley.  She is an outstanding, well-adjusted young woman who has handled this shocking revelation about her origins with bravery and a positive attitude. This is a strong testament to the wonderful parents that raised her. Their family really is an incredible example of love triumphing over adversity.

It might surprise some to hear Paula’s thoughts on DNA testing and how it has affected her family’s lives. “We still believe wholeheartedly in DNA testing for genealogy,” she told me. “The three of us have said we are glad we now know and if we had it to do over, we would do 23andMe again.”  She also expressed to me how thankful she was with 23andMe’s quick response to her concerns. “They got back to me within 15-20 minutes of me first writing to them. I was in a panic and it was at the end of the day. It meant everything to hear back from them so quickly.” She is steadfast in her conviction that this is something that her family needed to know. She added, “My husband also said that he was glad to find out while he is alive. He wouldn’t want Ashley to ever think that if he had known the truth, maybe he wouldn’t have loved her. He had that opportunity and he made sure she knew he loves her just as much and to him it is insignificant. He is her father and always will be.”

So, you are probably wondering by now - what is the family’s recourse? Tom is in an early grave due to alcoholism (perhaps brought on by a guilty conscience?) and the clinic in question is no longer in business. When contacted and informed of Tom’s alleged treachery, the University of Utah claimed that he was, in fact, a “popular donor”. With his criminal background, this seems highly doubtful. When pressed for his donor number, they have been unable or unwilling to supply it to Paula, Ashley or even Tom’s widow, although all should be legally entitled to it if it indeed ever existed. Paula was reportedly told that they were unable to release it due to privacy concerns. However, when Tom’s widow requested it, which is her right as his next of kin, she was reportedly told that they did not have that information. (Sperm donor registries were searched under the name of the clinic and the university for any  donors fitting Tom's description - none were found.)  Further, the university has so far declined to contact the families who conceived at this clinic during the years that Tom worked there and advise them of the situation.

Both families, including Tom’s cousin and widow, support Paula in her efforts to get to the truth.  We believe that any other families affected would want to know as well. There is much more to this story – too much to share here today. The bottom line is that we are hoping that couples who used the Reproductive Medical Technologies Clinic in Salt Lake City (which they, like Paula, may have simply known as the University of Utah’s fertility clinic) to conceive between 1986 and 1995 will hear about this story and reach out to Paula. We have set up a site for inquiries (here). If couples suspect that they may have been one of Tom’s victims, they are encouraged to have their children tested at 23andMe where the DNA of both Ashley and Tom’s mother is in the database for comparison purposes. Testing at either of the other two companies – AncestryDNA or Family Tree DNA - will also match any half-siblings to Ashley’s DNA.

“I think about the families in SLC who will have this to deal with this, this year.  I want the truth for these families and then to move on with our lives. “ – Paula


We will keep everyone informed of any significant developments in this very important story.

41 comments:

  1. Unbelievable. My thoughts and prayers are with this family. I admire you all for being brave enough to use your experience to help others.

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  2. WOW is all I can say. Thank goodness for DNA being so accessible and at such a low price. Great story.

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  3. What could have been an even more tragic situation, this family is handling gracefully.

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  4. Incredible.

    Kudos to CeCe, Paula, Ashley, Jeff, and Tom's family, for handling such a difficult situation with grace and dignity. And to 23andMe for being prompt on the follow up!

    And shame on University of Utah for sticking its head in the sand and stonewalling. I hope this post incites a swirl of publicity that will teach them a lesson.

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  5. Reminds me of the Dr.Cecil Jacobson case in Northern VA in the 1980's. I worked for a OB-GYN clinic and the doctors would refer infertility patients to him, then in 1991 the truth came out. 75 kids at least he fathered with his sperm. See wiki page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecil_Jacobson

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  6. Shame on the University for so many things. It's sickening how they said he was a popular donor. They should have told the family the truth. I admire them for how they handled their situation and sharing their story to help others.

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  7. Ce Ce, You should secure "Movie Rights" now, but don't move forward until after the University has had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in court ordered damages. An amazing story!

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    1. This is not Ce Ce Moore's story; she was asked by Paula to use her platform to relay it. To try to secure movie rights would be just another person exploiting Paula, Jeff and Ashley for personal gain and would make her no better than Tom Lippert.

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    2. I completely agree that it is their story and that they should be in control of it, which is why I have always allowed them to be so in every way (including approving every word of the article that I wrote prior to publication). They will be the ones to decide what they do with it.

      However, I think I would have to do something pretty awful to be classified with Tom Lippert!

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    3. This is not about money. Why is money always involved? Is money really going to solve anything? The only damages money might resolve would be for counselling for those involved or paid testing for others. Where in the world does the hundreds of millions of dollars phrase come from? Such greed in our society. Really. Sad and unfortunate circumstances truly, but why create misery for more people or universities?

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  8. What a very sad story. The family are very brave to speak out. There was a similar case to this in the UK:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2126761/Bertold-Wiesner-British-scientist-fathered-600-children-donating-sperm-fertility-clinic.html

    I've never understood why the US doesn't put a limit on the number of sperm donations that a man can make as happens in many other countries:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sperm_donation_laws_by_country

    The children who are conceived by donor conception should also have the right to know the identify of their biological father. The law was changed to this effect in 2005 in the UK:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4397249.stm

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    1. A legal limit on donations would not be protection from employee substituting his own semen for that of any number of other donors.

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  9. Even I think this is an amazing story. It does show that DNA tells you who you really are. The challenges are if the individuals involved are not so well-rounded and mature as these folk seem to be, but I guess they are less likely to get into DNA testing to find out such things.

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  10. This is an amazing story. You wonder though what the outcome would have been if the individuals were not so well-rounded and mature as these folk clearly are. But then maybe they might not have gotten into DNA testing in the first place.

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  11. Incredible story, and a beautiful response from Jeff, the father. We can only hope that other families will be as supportive if their fears should come to pass. Paula is quite a role model, too.

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  12. As always, Cece, your clearly written articles, are very much appreciated. I agree with XoMa's comments above. I applaud all for their desire to find out the truth and deal with the facts. I was born in a home for unwed mothers, which I didn't find out until I received the records from my church in the mail. I was then 45 years old. My mother would NOT discuss this event with me. I've been dedicated to dealing with real life facts all of my life, long before this event happened to me. There were just to many secrets in my family, and the SECRETS, in my humble opinion, do more damage.

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  13. The wikipedia link that kschu56 posted seems to be for the wrong Cecil Johnson, but I found this article which seems to be the correct person: http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19920214&slug=1475753.

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  14. Family Tree DNA testing would reveal all male paternal line descendants of this critter. I would get the haplotype in the database at Family Tree DNA, Ancestry, and Y Search, so that grandchildren and so forth can identify what happened. It won't work for girls, unfortunately.

    It is important to get documentation. 1500 years from now genetic genealogists will be wondering what could have created this cluster.

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    1. Hi Dora,
      Good point, however we don't yet know Tom's Y-DNA signature. Since he has no KNOWN sons and was an only child, we haven't discovered it yet. I will have to do some research to see if I can find a paternal line cousin. Once we do, we will make sure it is out there.
      Thanks for your comment.

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  15. Thanks for the comments, everyone. The family really appreciates your support!

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  16. Excellent article, YGG. Is there a pulitzer prize for investigative blogging? If so, this post deserves the award!

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  17. The man is deceased, the clinic is gone, and the University of Utah is stonewalling. I don't know what Paula and Jeff's plans are but I'm sure someone who used the clinic and did unexpectedly wind up with Tom's sperm will be considering a class action suit. In some cases, it isn't the money, it's the desire to get answers from an organization who wants to sweep this whole thing under the rug.

    Fortunately, Paula has done her investigative "homework" and has irrefutable evidence.

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  18. A truly amazing story CeCe. It sounds as though there will be much more to this story to come. Kudos to you, Paula*, Ashley* and Jeff* for being able to put the pieces in the puzzle together.

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  19. What a horrible story. Massive respect to Paula, Jeff, and Ashley for handling it so well and for sharing it.

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  20. The University contracted the service, and that makes the contractor an AGENT of the University, and the University has liabilities. That is why the stone wall. (There is no donor number, because this bozo donated his own samples on the sly.)

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    1. Liabilities for what, exactly? Based on the introductory material, I don't see how the family has been harmed: they specifically say they were giving up when Tom intervened, and their daughter is reportedly everything a parent could hope for. Far from being harmed, aren't they much better off with their daughter than childless?

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  21. Stories need to be told and I'm glad you told the world. Now I'm wondering if you need a male DNA from the family to correctly identify for a father, how was she able to do this if he was an only son and no other males were yet found? Just wondering .

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  22. It's very significant the few attention that Jeff receives in the story. He's the main victim, by far, as it's obvious, but he's the (legal) father, that is, the man. He's been completely screwed off. His reproductive chances are over. He's suffered a cuckoldry of sorts, but he's the one who receives less attention.

    Because he's the man.

    This really sheds light on the sickening nature of current euro culture. Unbelievable.

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    1. I feel he received attention in the article that poignantly expressed his feelings of love for his daughter, as well as his concern for her perception of those feelings.. It was the mother and daughter that were so interested with 23andMe and similar companies, hence the attention on them and their shocking discovery.

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    2. Hi,
      I don't have time right now to address every comment, but I did want to respond to this one. Personally, I have had great concern for Jeff's feelings and well-being and have thought about him extensively throughout this ordeal, but I didn't feel that it was my place to write about how he is feeling since it is Paula that I have been speaking with directly, not Jeff. If he desires to share his feelings with the world, then I am sure there will be ample opportunity to do so. He is certainly not overlooked in all of this in my mind.
      Thanks,
      CeCe

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  23. I hope the family finds and sues the pants off of someone. Also, I hope they find out the bio donor's medical history so the daughter knows what ailments she may be predisposed to. Unbelievable story. Bless this family who were innocent parties to a madman's scheme.

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  24. Cece Moore and the Branums are right to suspect that there are more victims. During the five years that I was his next door neighbor, Lippert exhibited paranoid delusions, narcissism and was highly manipulative and violent toward others. He had no qualms about brandishing firearms, he and an accomplice had fired shots in our neighborhood on multiple occasions. Ultimately his sociopathic behavior forced me to move my family away after law enforcement was unable to help. It's important to find out all we can about the reasons for this behavior. Genetic testing is critical as Lippert's DNA is a strong component of his behavior.

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  25. Does this have anything to do with the belief in a celestial afterlife and the belief in presiding over a planet? I heard that polygamists in the LDS religion believe that having many wives and children will increase their stature of authority in the afterlife, or some belief system related to that. Not trying to be confrontational at all here. Did Lippert have a worldview structured from a belief in the afterlife based on some misunderstanding of this concept?

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  26. My parents are one of thousands of people who used donor sperm through the University of Utah between 1988 and 1993, and I've been in contact with them this past month to try to discover if their sperm could have been switched out with Lippert's. They called as recently as yesterday to tell me that they could not find records of my mother at the clinic, possibly because most of those records are missing or destroyed. I'm not a geneticist, but would a DNA test between Ashley and I confirm whether Lippert is also my biological father? I have been registered with Family Tree DNA for several years and have not had any significant relative matches (using the Family Finder test) but I don't currently have the funds to order a test through 23 and Me (like Ashley, I'm also a college student). In their defense, University of Utah had been very helpful trying to figure this out, and it's really the fault of administration 20 years ago that this happened.

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    1. Hi Rebecca,
      I'm glad that you wrote because I can put your mind at ease. If you do not show a match to Annie aka Ashley at Family Tree DNA on Family Finder, then you are not the biological daughter of Tom Lippert. If you were, Annie would show up at the very top of your list as a predicted aunt, niece, grandmother or half sibling (all share about 25% of their DNA). Please feel free to write to me privately at yourgeneticgenealogist@gmail.com to discuss this further, if needed.

      I am glad to hear that the University has been helpful. Those records were destroyed years ago from what I have been told, so they will likely never find your mother's file. It is true that the administration from 20 years ago is at fault and some of those same people are still employed at the University.

      I am sorry that this situation has caused stress for you and I send my best wishes to you and your family!

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    2. Great and very necessary idea from Paula that there should be Dna testing after every medically assisted conception. There is no Earthly reason why this should not have already been a rule. Medical practice needs to be properly regulated in every country to prevent all kinds of abuses. There is also no reason why CCTV should not have been used in institutions for caring for the vulnerable here in the UK, to supervise the staff at all times, given all the scandals there have been about these places. It is not like we don't already have an authoritarian state. The previous government outlawed public criticism of a senior minister on a really ropey pretext.

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  27. >>She continued, “I also feel strongly that this can be stopped in the future from ever happening again. Independent DNA testing [should be mandatory] after the baby is born when using any kind of sperm procedure. No one would do this knowing they would immediately be found out.”<<

    I couldn't agree more. It is amazing that this has not been the law all along. The entire medical system needs to be rigorously monitored at all times to prevent abuses!

    Similarly, there should also have been CCTV used to monitor staff in care homes for vulnerable people here in the UK. The scandals of abuse by staff that we know about are just the tip of the iceberg. Given how authoritarian our government is. The previous government banned criticising a senior minister in public, but left the medical sector to run amock.

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