Letter: Victimised by false allegations of abuse

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The Independent Online
Sir: The president of the Association of Directors of Social Services (letter, 7 December) may be right in saying that the recent report by Parents Against Injustice does not give a fair picture of up-to-date practice in the investigation of child abuse, although a little more compassion for the statistically few who have had their lives wrecked by wrong accusations would not have gone amiss. And he is right to point out that much work has gone into making social work procedures more rigorous and more skilled.

But there is another area of work where his association needs to act with speed and concern and that is in work, particularly residential, with emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children. Here, the number of allegations against staff of abuse has escalated since the introduction of the Children Act, under which children have been made aware of their rights to protection from all forms of ill-treatment and of their rights to make complaints.

A number of staff known to us have recently been submitted to extremely stressful and long investigations on the basis of such complaints. Their establishment may be put under investigation, they may be suspended from work, they may even be arrested and held in police stations overnight. So far, none of those we know has been charged with any offence.

Of course, we understand that the protection of children must come first, but we should like to see some evidence of a realisation that the welfare of the people who do this extremely demanding work is also important. At present, workers are treated as guilty until proved innocent. They live through a period of great stress against which their innocence is no protection, since they do not know that their word will be accepted. Even after no charge is made, they may feel that the rest of the world sees this as a verdict of 'not proved', and this may be correct.

We all know that in the recent past children have been horribly abused in establishments that were meant to care for them. We also ought to know, unless we were born yesterday, that, as Lord Clyde pointed out in the recent Orkneys inquiry, children have to be listened to, but they do not necessarily have to be believed. We know that children who have been abused learn the power of accusation, especially when there is now the possibility of substantial rewards for abuse suffered.

The point is being reached where good, experienced people are no longer willing to expose themselves to the threat of unfounded allegations and are beginning to seek other work. If this trend is not stopped, then the children will be the losers. Disturbed children and young people need the highest levels of professional skill if they are to grow to reasonable maturity, and staff need better protection.

There are no easy answers. But it must be accepted that there is a pressing problem and one in which the Association of Directors of Social Services has a central role.

Yours faithfully,

MARION BENNATHAN

ROBERT LASLETT

London, NW2

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