Managing Serious And Complex Sexual Abuse Allegations

Continuing our coverage of the speakers at the Bi-annual Family Law Conference by the Birmingham Law Society, today we look at the talk given by Richard Hadley a barrister at No5 Chambers. 

Mr Hadley, a specialist in matters of law relating to children, has represented many local authorities through the county in some of the most complex and sensitive care proceedings.  His talk spoke about the lessons not learned from the Cleveland case in 1987 and where recommendations are still not being followed.  It was suggested that those not familiar with the Cleveland case should acquaint themselves and lessons should be taken on board.   

The Cleveland Case 

Having been consistent in the levels of reported child abuse in the Cleveland area with other parts of the country, in a period between February and July 1987 many children were removed from their homes by Social Services after being diagnosed as sexually abused.  A total of 121 children were diagnosed by two paediatricians.  It was not long before the test used to diagnose the abuse was discredited, meaning 94 children of the 121 were incorrectly diagnosed.  The methods used by the agencies in removing the children from their homes was also criticised, leading to the Butler-Sloss Report published in 1988.  It was the following year that the Children Act was implemented as a result. 

Where investigations go wrong 

McFarlane LJ: 

“….no case of alleged sexual abuse where there is an absence of any probative medical or other direct physical evidence to support a finding can be regarded as straightforward.” 

Mr Hadley was quick to point out the doctors are not always right, as highlighted in the Cleveland case, and that medical evidence should not be taken on its own.  Medical professionals have guidance in the form of the ‘The Physical Signs of Child Sexual Abuse’ by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, better known as ‘The Purple Book’.  However, from his experience, this was not regularly referred to and some did not even know what it was.  If the Purple Book guidance has not been followed, then independent experts may be called in.   

‘The child must be believed’ mindset can cause damage to a case when an allegation has been made by a child.  Mr Hadley recommends an ‘open mind’ must be kept by all professionals and agencies involved, otherwise this can lead to evidence being sought and found to prove what the child has alleged rather than finding any evidence that could also disprove the allegations. In an age where pornography is so easily available, the concepts of age appropriate knowledge should also be widened.  Children are highly suggestible and no matter how innocent people investigating any allegation may be, they can cause the child to embellish their story or say what they think people want to hear.   

If a child is told that they have done well when giving a statement and promised a biscuit the next time they visit, this slight reward can encourage them to make further allegations to be able to return.  Mr Hadley recommended that lawyers chose their words carefully when dealing with children, so not to make evidence unreliable. 

It was also recommended that when delegating any investigations to Social Services or a person that the child trusts, these people have training on how to obtain reliable evidence and not use leading questions.  These people can also be eager to please an investigator, again embellishing the information they were given by the child, ultimately undermining any evidence. 

Another point raised was the poor note keeping by professionals.  Note taking was a critical part of the forensic analysis and uncertainty can arise should it not be done correctly.  The questions asked should also be noted as well as the answers, so as to minimise any ambiguity. 

The dangers of unreliable disclosures, ambiguous note keeping and lack of training for all involved in a case when it comes to taking evidence, can lead to disastrous consequences.  It is not difficult for a child to be taken away from a safe home or for a child to be returned to a home and suffer continued abuse.  There is a very fine line, but these stark realities need to be kept at the forefront of a professional’s mind.  The lessons learned from the Cleveland case need to be listened to and recommendations followed.   

A full note on the presentation will soon be available on the No5 Chambers’ website. 

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