Warning on perils of abuse claims

CHILD protection workers investigating allegations of child abuse were warned yesterday of the 'incalculable damage' that can be done to families by over-hasty intervention without proof or evidence.

In a hard-hitting speech after several child abuse cases in which parents were wrongly accused, John Bowis, Under- Secretary of State for Health, said 'fear and suspicion' should not pervade family life.

Giving the keynote address at a seminar entitled Secret Suffering or False Allegation?, organised by the National Children's Bureau, Mr Bowis said child protection workers should always keep an open mind and not assume guilt. But, he added: 'I do not underestimate the difficult task faced by the social worker or medical staff, who have to use their judgement and take a decision which the rest of us would rather not take.'

He emphasised the need for a delicate balance between protecting children at risk and the rights of accused adults to a fair hearing, and indicated that the pendulum had swung too far against the accused.

Acknowledging the need for better training in reporting and investigation methods, Mr Bowis told the conference, which was attended by teachers, social workers and police officers, that professionals needed to maintain an even- handed approach when investigating allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

'These revelations - a very strong word but which I think accurately describes the impact of child abuse allegations on all concerned - may reflect clear, well-founded suspicions, supported by firm evidence. More often, the situation is far from clear. It is full of . . . inconsistencies, conflicting ideas and judgements. We have to acknowledge that recollections of events may be transformed by the passage of time, by misinterpretation, by outside pressures, and occasionally by intent. At worst, the allegations may be untrue.'

Mr Bowis said teachers and other childcare workers were becoming increasingly worried about false allegations. 'It is a nightmare for professionals, as much as parents, to feel they have been unjustly accused and cannot clear their name.'

He warned that the feelings of vulnerability to false allegations eroded professionals' confidence in caring for children, and said the 'ebbing of confidence detracts from the standard of care'.