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The government's new proposals to prevent child abuse are more likely to end up harming children and parents, argues Tiffany Jenkins, director of Families for Freedom

How 'child protection' can destroy families

The Department of Health's recent proposals on child protection sound very caring and inclusive. However, despite its intentions, 'Working together to safeguard children: new government proposals for interagency cooperation' could actually hurt children and parents by encouraging more needless interference in family life.

The document acknowledges that some families have been wrongly investigated over suspicions of abuse, and notes the traumatic effects of such allegations. The new proposals are intended to 'give clear routes in and out of the child protection system so that children and families are not drawn into the net unnecessarily'.

This is a worthy aim. It is striking that while there is no evidence that the incidence of child abuse has risen, there is a worrying increase in the suspicion of abuse where none has taken place. Over the past 10 years action has been taken to disrupt and investigate families with no serious evidence of abuse.

Each social services department holds a central register which lists the children in its area who are considered to be at risk of abuse and who are the subject of an interagency plan to protect them. A child protection conference assesses the level of risk to the child and, in light of that, decides whether the child's name is placed on the register. A significant proportion of children whose families have been investigated are found not to be at risk.

'Working together to safeguard children' admits that over half of the 160 000 annual child protection enquiries relating to children do not lead to action once investigated. In other words, more than 80 000 families were suspected of abuse, investigated and, once cleared, were left to repair the damage. The Audit Commission has reported that about two thirds of referrals to social services are dropped before being considered for regis- tration at a case conference. Even of the 44 100 children who were the subject of initial child protection conferences in 1996, 15 830 were not put on the register. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that thousands of families are being investigated needlessly.

Some might say better a thousand families investigated than one child left abused, but this misses the very real effects of the investigations on family life.

The 1989 Children Act emphasises that government agencies are to consider the child's interests to be paramount at all times. This is often interpreted in such a way as unduly to counterpose the interests of the child to those of its parents. In practice this has meant that parents' rights have been removed, and government agencies have a greater say in regulating family life in the name of protecting the child.

Government agencies promote the need to consult children over what is in their interests, but ultimately it is the courts that act on their behalf over the heads of their parents. After a single allegation of abuse is made, the wishes of the parent can be ignored, and they no longer have any decision- making powers. Their right to legal 'due process' and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is abrogated. Their family life is put under scrutiny and their parenting questioned. Their child can be wrenched away and placed in care where nobody knows them or loves them like a parent can.

Once others outside of the family are given the power to make decisions, instead of the parents, it can only serve to undermine the bonds between parent and child -
damaging the child's trust in their parents (and possibly the parents' trust in each other), and shattering the confidence of the parent concerned.

The process of inspection blatantly infers to the child that they should not trust their parents - that a stranger from the social services department is actually the best protector of their interests, including, if necessary, protecting them from their own father and mother. Investigation is not a quiet process; the school, friends, colleagues, neighbours and other family members are consulted. Once accused, many spend years trying to regain the trust of these people. At a time when parental confidence is already low and people are more mistrustful of one another, the consequence of false accusations and investigations can be to wreck homes and lives.

The proposal in the introduction of the 'Working together' report to stop unnecessary intervention would be a valiant attempt, if the rest of the document did not go against this sentiment totally. In fact 'Working together' is a trigger-happy extension of the parameters for outside intervention in family life.

'Working together' makes an important but unsubstantiated claim - that it is possible to recognise people who will abuse their children before they even do it. The DoH suggests working with these 'types' and widening services for children they consider in need. This translates into intervening in even more family lives, when there is not even an allegation of child abuse: 'We have promoted the message that, rather than focusing too narrowly on alleged incidents of neglect or abuse, agencies should to be taking (sic) a wider view of the overall needs of child (sic) and their families. It can often be more helpful to provide services and support to multiply disadvantaged families when problems first present rather than waiting for difficulties to escalate into abuse.'

Contrary to the report's assumption, there is no simple link between a 'type' of person or their circumstances, and their likeli- hood to abuse their own children. Trying to pre-empt abuse in this manner effectively means criminalising people who have done nothing wrong. Targeting families that the DoH deem as having difficulties will be less about stopping child abuse and more about blaming the parents whom the government considers responsible for all kinds of social problems today.

'Working together' claims, as a matter of fact, the existence of 'a growing body of research which confirms the links for some young abusers of being exposed to domestic violence, family breakdown and sexual abuse and then going on to perpetuate sexual abuse themselves'. But this 'link' is fiercely contested by experts who insist that there is overriding evidence that most parents who were abused do not themselves go on to abuse. Leading US researcher into child violence professor Sharon Herzberger, having reviewed the evidence, wrote in 1993: 'It is abundantly clear that not all people who have experienced violence will grow up to be violent. In fact, a minority of maltreated children grow up to maltreat their own children.'

The government's proposal will widen the definition of child abuse to include potential abuse, and makes an unsupported claim to know who will abuse their own children. On the basis of this, and despite acknowledging serious problems with intervention into the lives of too many families, the DoH proposes greater intervention from more agencies than ever before.

The report lists the following agencies as potential interveners: healthcare workers, social services, people in education, the police, guardian ad litem, probation services, daycare workers, GPs/doctors, prison ser-vices, and, just in case they have missed anybody out, everybody in the community, voluntary and private sectors. The document stresses the importance of all of these professionals and agencies sharing information in the interest of all children. This marks a rad-ical change in the responsibilities of some of these agencies.

GPs, for example, are supposed to have a commitment to patient confidentiality; yet the new policy insists that they should break that commitment and pass information on families to the authorities: 'It is important family doctors play a full part in identifying those families and children for whom early intervention may be needed to the (sic) prevent the development of longer term problems later on. The government is encouraged to see a growing awareness among GPs of the contribution they can make to children's welfare. However, levels of interest and awareness are not as yet uniformly high.' In short, not enough doctors are yet prepared to breach their traditional ethical codes.

The family is one of the few areas where people conduct their lives more or less on their own terms. Traditionally it has been a no-go area for the state - yet increasingly the 'private sphere' of the family is being eroded as the government takes more and more interest in people's private lives. 'Poor parenting' is now the subject of numerous parliamentary initiatives. The Home Office has its own family and parenting group to compliment an all-party parliamentary group on parenting, while Jack Straw has announced plans for a National Family and Parenting Institute, designed to set standards for parenting programmes and to establish a telephone helpline for parents. In this context 'Working together' can be seen as another step by the authorities into the family home.

'Working together' strengthens the hand of those who wish to intrude into the private space of the family at a time when other government measures are ransacking the rights of people to raise their children as they think best. If these proposals go through, the lives of parents and children will be further eroded. Families will be threatened with being broken up, not just because of an unfounded suspicion of abuse, but because they are considered to fit into a certain officially defined 'type'. Such policies not only risk ruining the lives of those families subject to direct intervention; they also undermine the wider principle that parents have the authority and ability to bring up their children. When that principle is undermined, the family truly will become dysfunctional.

Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998

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