A judge has criticised “patent deficiencies” in a social worker’s assessment of child abuse claims against a father that were later found to be false.
In his judgment, Justice MacDonald said the social worker’s child protection investigation showed a “complete disregard” of good practice guidance when examining a mother’s claims that the man, TH, had subject her, the man’s son and another of the woman’s children to serious emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
The social worker’s assessment was the “most acute” example of a failure of almost all agencies involved with the children to interrogate the mother’s claims properly, the judge found.
The social worker’s “unquestioning acceptance” of the mother’s account meant she failed to make basic enquiries to the father, extended families or the children’s former schools or local authorities, MacDonald said. The mother had told the social worker it would be “too dangerous” to make the enquiries as TH could track down the family and kidnap the children.
The judge said “such enquiries would have revealed a fundamentally different picture to that being painted by the mother”. He found all of the allegations made by the mother were false and concluded she had placed “unwarranted pressure” on the children by actively coaching them to back up the allegations.
“[The social worker’s] failure to challenge the mother’s account and accept it at face value meant that she permitted the mother to dictate completely the frame of reference for the actions of the local authority and other agencies and meant that the mother succeeded in portraying herself and the children as victims of serious physical and sexual abuse when in fact they were not,” MacDonald said.
The case involved Scottish and English agencies. Prior to August 2014, both children lived in Scotland, with TH’s son living predominantly with him. In July 2014 the mother commenced a relationship with a man in England. In August 2014 when both boys were in her care in England, she refused to return, or return them to Scotland. TH launched proceedings in Scotland to secure the return of his son to his care.
‘Quite extraordinary case’
MacDonald found that failures in the way professionals had handled the case had contributed to the difficulties assessing evidence, “materially prejudiced the welfare of both children” and contributed to their emotional harm. In addition to the social work assessment he pointed to:
- A failure by social workers, police and teachers to keep accurate records of what the mother and children had said. This resulted in accounts that were “diametrically opposed”.
- The “poor quality” of assessing best evidence interviews, including the repeated use of leading questions and questioning one child when the other was present.
- A failure to coordinate interventions that led the children to be questioned by 19 professionals. One child was questioned on 20 occasions and the other on 44 occasions. The boys were interviewed by five different police officers.
The judge said the case was “very troubling” and concluded: “It is important to recognise that the professional failures I have set out have had consequences.
“By reason of the failure of the relevant agencies to follow the clear and well established guidance and procedure the children were not only left in a situation where a parent was permitted to persist in conduct that was harmful to their emotional welfare but, by their omissions, those agencies actively contributed to that harm.”
He added: “When investigating allegations of child abuse, including allegations of child sex abuse, it is imperative that all professionals involved adhere to the law and guidance…so as to ensure the rigorous and fair investigation of allegations that is the foundation of ensuring the children concerned are safeguarded.
“Having listened to the evidence in this case the Children’s Guardian told the court that she considered this case to be ‘quite extraordinary’. Surveying the conduct of professionals in this case she concluded that ‘it is as if a sort of hysteria took over and prevented people from asking certain questions’. I cannot help but agree.”