Smoke without fire

Every year some 120,000 parents are wrongly accused of child abuse. The cases are dropped, but no one ever says sorry. And now, reports Diane Taylor, their only support group has folded

Wednesday January 12, 2000

It may begin when your child falls off a slide and breaks her wrist. Then, two weeks later, thrown off balance by the plastercast, she slips and breaks an ankle. Or perhaps you have a tiff with a nasty neighbour, who makes an anonymous call to social services, falsely accusing you of abusing your son. The next thing you know, a child abuse investigation is launched and every aspect of your life, and the way you bring up your children, is picked over by a handful of professionals.

Sounds like one of the more improbable EastEnders plots? Maybe - but conservative estimates put the number of innocent parents involved in this kind of child abuse investigation at more than 120,000 a year. The department of health does not collate national statistics, but research carried out in 1992 showed that of the 160,000 child abuse investigations launched that year, 140,000 resulted in no further action. Many of the remaining 20,000 were abandoned following child protection conferences. Just 4% of the children involved ended up in care.

Until recently, there was an organisation which provided support to those who had been wrongly accused. Set up in 1985, Pain made parents aware of their legal rights, assisted them in getting lawyers and helped them recover after being pulled through a system which often left them feeling abused themselves.

Pain's case files make frightening reading. One couple contacted Pain when their children, aged two and five, were taken into hospital after the infectious skin complaint impetigo was mistaken for cigarette burns. Even though new "burns" developed on the children's skin while they were in hospital under close supervision, the accusations continued until the parents brought in a dermatologist.

Another couple's nightmare began when their baby, just a few weeks old, became suddenly unwell. In hospital, a haemorrhage behind the eyes was spotted. The baby turned out to have viral encephalitis, a difficult condition to diagnose, which produces this kind of bleeding. But the bleeding can also be caused by shaking a baby, and the parents were accused of abuse before a second medical opinion established encephalitis.

A third mother rang Pain because her baby had been diagnosed as having a fractured femur and she was suspected of inflicting it. The child had begun to cry in a very distressed manner soon after a paediatrician had performed the standard test on newborns for clicking hips. It was only because the baby's father was a doctor and realised the true cause of the problem that accusations were withdrawn.

Once a case is closed, social workers, police and doctors move on - but parents and children are left to pick up the pieces. Until last year, Pain received 40,000 a year from the department of health, and a matching amount from Children In Need. But the funding has ended with the DoH saying it wants to give newer charities a chance, so Pain has had to disband. Barrister Jane Hoyal, a children's rights champion and Pain chairwoman from 1995 to 1998, says: "I think we were too much of a thorn in the side of social services; we criticised them strongly. We had cases of parents whose lives have never been the same, and children taken into care who still can't talk about the whole thing. You can't stand up for children's rights if you persecute their parents."

However, even Rob Hutchinson, chairman of the association of directors of social services children and families committee, laments the passing of Pain: "Although they were very challenging to us, they helped maintain a balance as parents' advocates in the hugely difficult area of child protection." He says that, thanks to Pain, alleged abuse is now investigated less confrontationally.

Sue Amphlett, founder of Pain and herself the subject of a child abuse investigation after her 17-month-old daughter Lucy suffered two fractures, replies that, while local authorities have made great strides in providing support with parenting skills and therapy for some of the most disadvantaged families, thousands of other innocent parents not viewed as "disadvantaged" by social services are still suffering at the hands of the system.

The investigation into Sue and her husband Steve happened 15 years ago, and took up nearly two years of their lives. It was dropped after four doctors ruled that Lucy's fractures were caused by mild brittle bone disease, making what would be an uneventful tumble for an ordinary child much more serious. But Lucy and her three-year-old sister Carly nevertheless spent nine months on the child protection register: "I still feel angry and frustrated because no one listened to what we had to say. The system is like a huge juggernaut which rides over whatever you try to do. It is very alien to most parents and leaves them feeling disempowered."

She says it is easy for an innocent situation to appear sinister once professionals have entered the home. After Lucy's first fracture, Amphlett started to wash her daughter in the bidet; it was easier to keep the arm in the plastercast out of the water. When she left Lucy in the bidet for a minute to get her clothes, Carly turned on the tap and scalded Lucy's feet. "It looked like child abuse to an outsider. Even now we have no way of proving we didn't do it. We have the opinion of four doctors, but there is no definitive test for brittle bone disease. I don't know how we survived the whole thing. For years after our daughters were removed from the child protection register, we were terrified that something would happen every time one of them fell over or had a minor accident."

Parents wrongly accused of child abuse go through various emotions, Amphlett says. "First comes the disbelief, then the anger. Who are these people and what do they think they are doing poking around in our lives? Then comes the terror that your children are going to be taken away. Then the parents start blaming each other." Meanwhile, the children become unsettled when questioned and perhaps medically examined.

Rioch Edwards-Brown - who was wrongly accused of shaking her baby Riordan and causing a subdural brain bleed, when in fact the damage had occurred during his birth - says she continues to live the nightmare four years after she became caught up in the system: "I used to leave my front door open and stand next to it whenever my son cried just so people could see he wasn't crying because I had harmed him. I've been having counselling for post-traumatic stress for the past two years."

Another mother wrongly accused of shaking her baby snapped one day under the pressure of being accused of something she hadn't done, and ended up slapping her son senseless. A third, accused of the same thing, got sterilised - she was terrified of false accusations starting all over again with another child. When it's all over, there are still the flashbacks, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress.

"I've known of parents who have committed suicide or taken overdoses because they can't cope with the fact their children have been taken away," says Amphlett. "No research has been done into the medium and long-term effects of being caught up in this sort of investigation. And what about the little girl whose parents are suspected of sexually abusing her when it is subsequently found that nothing went on? How will she be affected by those investigations, interviews and medical examinations when she reaches puberty?" Pain was lobbying for such research to be carried out when its funding was axed.

Amphlett dubs the professionals' approach to child abuse investigations "the Snoopy syndrome", after a cartoon in which Snoopy causes endless mayhem and, when surveying the mess, comments: "How can I be wrong? I'm so sincere." Now that Pain is no longer around, Amphlett fears more cases of bad practice will go unchallenged. "We never got an apology - most parents don't. The professionals just say they were acting in the best interests of the child on the basis of the information they had. If only someone would say, 'I'm sorry, we made a mistake.'"

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