Letter: A better way to tackle child abuse

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The Independent Online
A better way to tackle

child abuse

Sir: What is needed if children are to be more effectively protected from abuse and neglect is a root-and-branch reformation of the system through which decisions are made at the coalface - the case conference.

This is a clumsy instrument, difficult to convene, confused in composition (it includes those whose roles are judicial, those present essentially as expert witnesses, those whose responsibility is executive and those present as interested parties without confining their participation to their particular role) and seldom comprises on the day all who are entitled to or should be present.

If the children and care-givers involved are asked to give evidence at all, it is in what amounts for them to an intimidatory setting. Very often as a result entry to or deletion from the so-called at-risk register is used as a punishment or reward for good conduct rather than as an aide memoire to casualty officers, teachers, social workers and health visitors in their monitoring function.

The conference's decisions are very often rubber-stamped by magistrates if the case comes to court and by and large these are confined to whether or not to take the child into care - so often a move from frying pan to fire.

Two reforms are needed: the first, to replace the case conference by an inquisition by an examining magistrate, preferably with a double qualification in law and social work or paediatrics, and with power to subpoena witnesses and to decide whether a court hearing is required or what kind of supervision is necessary; the second, to replace the present system of supervision by social workers with a requirement to present the child regularly for weighing, physical examination and possibly interview by a child psychiatrist at the local clinic.

Those suspecting abuse would have the duty to report to the examining magistrate with their evidence and he/she to give them a hearing.

Such dispositions would in my view do much to contain the present epidemic of child abuse and to restore public confidence - so necessary now that just smiling at a child raises suspicions of paedophilia.


Professor Emeritus of Paediatrics, University of Cambridge

Great Shelford, Cambridge