Leading Article: Investigations that could go too far

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The Independent Online
AT FIRST sight, there seems to be every reason to sympathise with those who are, as we report today, planning to seek compensation for physical or sexual abuse suffered as children in care. More than 70 children and young adults are involved so far, and hundreds more are expected to follow suit. Yet the consequences of successful legal action could be serious.

Few reading the case histories on page 4 could fail to feel sympathy for the victims. Those taken into care have often already suffered at the hands either of their own parents or those of foster parents: at worst, a succession of the latter. They may have been either sexually abused or battered, or both. Almost certainly they will have been starved of affection.

With official policy now favouring fostering, only the most disturbed children are taken into institutional care. In too many instances, as a series of shocking cases has demonstrated, they have thereupon suffered further violence at the hands of those responsible for their welfare.

As with the police, a guilty minority damages the reputation of the profession as a whole. It would be further damaged by a series of heavily reported legal actions in which residential social workers were in the dock.

This very difficult job is already the Cinderella of the social services. It needs better training, status, career structure and incentives to encourage staff to stay - and thus form stable relationships with the children in their care. What residential care workers seem to face, instead, is a long period of anxiety and public pillorying. Many may decide there must be better ways to make a living.

A dilemma they face daily is how to restrain their most difficult young people from acts of violence. Children's and parents' rights were strengthened by the Children Act of 1989 - enacted following a wave of indignation over revelations of sexual abuse. Older children are very much aware of those rights. That is as it should be. But some experts believe that the balance has tipped too far. Any residential social worker who lays a restraining hand on a violent older child now risks being reported by that child for assault: either to the police, to the institution's management, or to a sympathetic outside social worker. Right or wrong, the effect of subsequent inquiries can be devastating. Affection shown to younger children, much needed though it might be, could be misconstrued.

Children's rights must come first. Their complaints should be treated with the utmost seriousness. The mandatory police checks on the previous records of potential staff must be carried out swiftly and thoroughly. But in the end it is the children themselves who will suffer most if a climate of fear is created among those appointed to look after them.