THE RESPONSE of professionals to claims of child abuse damage the majority of families in their attempts to protect the minority of children who are genuine victims, according to a charity set up to advise people wrongly suspected of abuse.
Parents Against INjustice (Pain) commissioned a study of 30 families who claim they were falsely accused and became victims of a system that treated them as guilty until proved innocent.
Calling on the Government to gather statistics on the number of allegations which prove to be unfounded, Sue Amphlett, director of Pain, said: 'It is our belief that the vast majority of parents do not abuse children. Of course children at risk must be protected, but the way the system works now, we are harming the majority while trying to protect the minority.'
The report, published yesterday, focuses on 10 detailed case histories, highlights more than 50 issues of perceived poor practice by child protection workers and discusses the implications for future practice.
At the report's launch in London, Pain announced the setting up of a 43-strong panel of advisers which will review the report and make recommendations.
The report's researchers found investigations began because of something said, usually by children, which was misinterpreted; something said by others, usually with malicious intent; misinterpretation of circumstances or behaviour, most commonly by teachers and doctors; or children taken to a doctor by parents out of concern for their health. Accusations frequently occurred during marital and custody disputes or came from rebellious adolescents.
Parents said they were perceived as guilty from day one and the onus was on them to prove their innocence; the initial home assessment was inadequate and too little weight was given to evidence refuting guilt. Parents also felt that no matter how they reacted their behaviour was seen as confirming guilt; they also felt under undue pressure to admit guilt, claiming the investigators would tell them: 'Say you did it and you can have your child back.'
The local authority child protection system failed to involve them in case conferences which had a crucial influence on their future. Social services failed to tell them of procedures or codes of practice or their rights, kept no systematic records and used flawed techniques when interviewing children.
Some of the concerns expressed by families, who were left bewildered and under continual stress, were the lack of sufficient knowledge, finance and support to defend themselves adequately; the children who had been removed were placed in locations which made contact difficult; the ease with which social services obtained court orders from magistrates; the lack of any form of emotional support when the case was completed; financial burdens caused by consequential loss of employment; children's loss of confidence in adults; fathers distancing themselves from daughters and scared of any form of physical contact lest it be misconstrued; difficulties and sometimes breakdowns in marriages.
The report's recommendations include: parents should attend the entire case conference, accompanied by a solicitor; the need for an agency to support and counsel families; social workers trained in investigation techniques, in the collection, recording and interpretation of evidence and in supporting families; and a need for social workers to have a body to set and monitor standards and a training agenda.
The report was produced by Westminster College, Oxford, a Methodist institution, and was partly funded by the BBC's Children in Need Appeal.
Child Abuse Investigations: The Families' Perspective; Parents Against INjustice, 3 Riverside Business Park, Stansted, Essex CM23 8PL; pounds 12.
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