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It's getting worse for vulnerable parents



Two months ago, health.telegraph explored the problem of children being taken into care after their parents had been falsely accused of ill-treatment. Since then, reports Cassandra Jardine, more than 40 couples have defied the rules of secrecy to tell of their own experiencesSince the acquittal of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Trupti Patel, a large question mark has hung over the belief, held by some paediatricians and social workers, that there is a hidden epidemic of child abuse in this country. Help needed: ‘it is getting worse for vulnerable parents and vulnerable children’ Those three women, whose children died sudden, unexpected deaths, had never been in trouble with the police or social services, yet they were accused of murder. The overturning of those verdicts may have left people with the impression that such miscarriages of justice no longer occur. Unfortunately, that confidence seems to be misplaced, as more cases are arising all the time. Nor does a child have to die for parents to find themselves accused of abuse or neglect. Children who have come to the attention of social services are being taken into care and then, possibly as a result of the Government’s drive to speed up the adoption process and increase the number of children adopted, sometimes permanently parted from their parents. Two months ago, The Daily Telegraph highlighted this problem in articles which included the story of an Essex couple, Emma and Martin. Emma had taken their baby, Peter, into hospital to have a bump on his head checked out. The child was put in foster care and a case was brought against them. Even though, after the final hearing, they received medical evidence that indicated their innocence, they could not bring an appeal – and Essex social services would not bring one on the child’s behalf. At that time, they were dreading a letter telling them that Peter had been legally adopted. Their case encompassed many of the complaints parents commonly make about social services: the seeming hostility of social workers; the reliance on medical experts with pet theories who have not examined a child, let alone met the family; the construction of cases without regard to parents’ good points and parental fears that, if the social worker and a child’s court-appointed guardian (usually an ex-social worker) take against them, the outcome in the family court is a foregone conclusion. The case also focused attention on problems connected with the family courts: the secrecy that prevents parents discussing their case or questioning expert opinions – and prevents journalists reporting proceedings; the judgments made on “probability” rather than “beyond reasonable doubt”, and the obstacles to bringing an appeal.The articles prompted more than 40 parents to defy the rules on secrecy and explain their own experiences of the system. Some said they had become involved with social services because of their children’s medical problems – accidents, brittle bones or undiagnosed illnesses – only to find themselves accused of shaking, hitting or attention-seeking as a result of Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy. Others, whose children have behavioural difficulties or are on the autistic spectrum, found themselves accused of mistreatment. A further group had asked social services for help related to illness (physical or mental) or violent relationships, only to find their children taken from them – and kept – even when they recovered and felt able to cope. A fourth group claimed that accusations of abuse had been made against them in retaliation for pointing out abuse or negligence by professionals.But parents were not the only ones to respond. Lawyers, politicians and academics came forward with analyses and suggestions for improving the system, as did the organisers of the fast-proliferating parental support groups who, between them, are hearing of several thousand new cases each year.A few – Lord Hanningfield, leader of Essex County Council, Felicity Collier, chief executive of British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) and one guardian – defended the status quo. Sadly, neither Margaret Hodge, Minister for Children, nor Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the president of the Family Division of the Royal Courts of Justice, responded, despite being sent the articles. Many of those who gave their views were pessimistic. Beverley Beech, who runs the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services, said that she can no longer concentrate on the main aim of her organisation because, in the five years since increased and speedier adoption targets were set, she has been “dragged in” to one case after another of babies taken from their mothers. “It is getting worse for vulnerable parents and vulnerable children,” says Jan Loxley-Blount, who runs Parents Protecting Children, which advises parents entangled with social services because of problems such as refusal to attend school and ME. “Local authorities don’t have the money for support, only for children on the child protection register.” Bill Bache, the solicitor who brought Angela Cannings’s successful appeal, sees “no new dawn of open-mindedness”, despite several subsequent cases in which parents have been cleared of false allegations. “We are facing closed minds in the judiciary and no assistance from any official source. It’s Blair’s distributive eugenics: if social services find a child in a situation where the adults are less than perfect, they put the child in care.” Some, however, are cautiously optimistic for families in the future, though not for those currently entangled in the system. The constitutional affairs select committee is investigating whether or not the family courts are providing an adequate service. Lord Filkin, an education minister, is examining cases of children with Asperger’s (high-functioning autism) whose behaviour has been ascribed to bad parenting. The Scottish Parliament has just announced a review of Munchausen’s cases. Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer, is reviewing the use of expert witnesses. Margaret Hodge is reviewing 30,000 cases involving medical evidence in the family courts and, any day now Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, is expected to announce which further cases will be sent to the Criminal Cases Review Commission as a result of the review following Cannings’s acquittal.The professions, too, are examining their own practices. Baroness Kennedy’s review for the Royal College of Pathologists has established better procedures in cases of infant death. Recently, three Family Court judges have started waiving the secrecy requirements. And last week, Harriet Harman, Solicitor General, announced that the Children’s Bill would include provision for the secrecy surrounding the Family Court to be changed, so that parents can discuss their cases with MPs and advocates. Now that guardians are accountable to the courts, they are behaving more independently of social services. And, as a result of the Daily Telegraph articles, Essex County Council is conducting two inquiries which are due to report later this month; already, some Essex parents are reporting a greater willingness to release papers – a major bone of contention for those trying to prove their innocence.Many activists do not believe these measures address the core of the problem. “Not when social workers have so much power and the belief in parental abuse is so ingrained in doctors’ and social workers’ minds,” says Penny Mellor, who advises parents accused of Munchausen’s and other abuse. “Why can’t we have the public inquiry which Earl Howe, Conservative health spokesman, is calling for?” Charles Pragnell, a former social worker who is now an international adviser on child protection cases, believes that the Government has good reason to avoid an inquiry. “The health, education and social services have diverted children and their families into the child protection system,” he says, “blaming the parents for causing harm to their children to avoid providing them with services. “Why do we not, in Britain, have similar legislation to the Irish Republic, where acc
usations of false abuse are a criminal offence? More than 85 per cent of reports of child abuse are subsequently found to have no substantive basis and have been made for largely mistaken, mischievous, malicious or monetary reasons. Every year, more than 450,000 children are unnecessarily drawn into child protection investigations which cause them severe and long-lasting emotional harm.” Some in social services appear to think the occasional unnecessary removal – even adoption – is a reasonable price for preventing child abuse. “You don’t know what it is like when you return a child to parents and that child dies,” says Felicity Collier of BAAF, who experienced that anguish when she was a social worker. But the practice of accusing parents without substantial evidence is expensive. Expert fees, fostering, assessments, preparing adopters and legal fees mount up: a single Munchausen’s investigation can cost £2-£3 million. It also prevents social workers investigating real cases of child abuse, which is usually carried out by people who don’t take a child to hospital or call social services for assistance – and very rarely by parents who have otherwise normal lives. A father, whose nine and 11-year-old daughters were taken from him when his wife suffered from mental illness, says: “Cases like ours are the very reason why there are insufficient resources and why the truly serious cases are overlooked. It would be more logical, simpler, cheaper and more humane to provide families with support when they need it in a non-judgmental way than to over-zealously guard children from their parents.” John Gumbleton, a former social worker, now runs Resolutions, an agency that can be called in to see whether rehabilitation is possible. “I don’t look at whether accusations are true or false,” he says. “I look at whether a family can be reunited. In three out of four cases, I find it can. It takes time, gradually building up contact again – sometimes, the parents may need educating – but, in the four years I have been providing this service, no child returned to a family has been reabused.” Emma and Martin might have been a perfect case for Gumbleton. Sadly, his services will not be needed. Three weeks ago, Emma could no longer bear not knowing what had happened to her son, so she wrote to Essex Social Services – and received a one-line reply confirming that he had been legally adopted. But their story does not end there. Solicitor Bill Bache is so shocked that they could not show the court medical evidence that might have led to a reunion, he has offered to take their case, for free, to the European Court of Human Rights. “Why would the court not reopen that case?” asks Bache. “Because a whole raft of cases would follow. That would make the family courts look foolish and open up a lot of claims for compensation.” Until the Government shows a willingness to address the central issues, more and more such cases will continue to pile up. Submissions from the public commenting on the work of the Family Courts should be sent, by November 1, to: Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, House of Commons, 7 Millbank, London SW1P 3JA Fresh thinking that could keep families in one piece What could be done to make it less likely that normal parents are accused and families torn apart without letting real abuse go undetected? Penny Mellor, an adviser to parents accused of abuse, suggests: “A child should remain at home while investigations are going on. That way, he or she is not parted from every source of security – home, family, friends, school. If necessary, the alleged perpetrator could be removed from the home or, if both parents are accused, a social worker move in. “While investigating suspicions, social services have to work on the basis of probability. But, before a child is taken into care or put up for adoption, criminal standards of proof, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, should apply.” One solution would be a separation of powers. Social workers find it difficult to get parents’ trust as they have a dual role: they are the source of support, but they also take children from families. A specialist child protection agency to investigate abuse would leave social workers free to help those in need. They could try to keep more families together without risking the “over-optimism” which Felicity Collier of British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering believes leads to children being returned to abusive parents. Britain seems to lead the world in false allegations, but in America many children have been taken from parents through poverty rather than deliberate neglect: a child might be left alone while a parent goes to work. In Alabama, however, the system has been rebuilt. Social workers now support rather than threaten families and the result is less abuse, and fewer families rent apart. A similar approach could work here. Cathy Ashley of the Family Rights Group believes the extended family should be allowed to help more often – in preference to foster carers. Even if a child has been taken into care, and families have become estranged, keeping them apart may not be inevitable