Research into practice

It is a view seldom promoted by the medical profession, but one
of its members recently broke rank and drew attention to what she
referred to the “high levels of damage” caused to families by
unfounded abuse allegations.1

Mary Pillai used the experiences of 22 families caught up in
civil or criminal proceedings. In none of the cases was there
evidence to support the abuse claims made against the parents, each
time by a daughter with mental health problems.

Pillai, a forensic medical examiner for Gloucestershire police,
cautions that it would be unwise to draw quantitative conclusions
on the scale of the problem because her work centred on a
self-selected group.

But one crucial fact emerged: no attempt was made in any of the
cases by the professionals involved to find out whether an incident
or injury had in fact occurred, as would be expected under section
47 of the Children Act 1989. Indeed, on reviewing paperwork, Pillai
found that doctors had written statements which were taken as fact
by other professionals when they were in reality “uncorroborated
opinion”. Case conferences, where evidence of this nature was
discussed as part of the process leading to registration, were
described by families as “a kangaroo court with no validated

Pillai raises two features that have been covered elsewhere in
discussion of false and unjustified allegations: namely the
“profiling” of families and alleged abusers and the reliance by
accusers or investigators on “denial” as an indication of

The paper also covers territory already covered elsewhere
relating to repressed memory and whether children lie when claiming
to have been abused. But one new argument is that there should be
formal accountability within the body that co-ordinates child
protection, the area child protection committee (ACPC), for the
integrity of information that is presented at each stage of the
child protection process.

“Professionals tended to respond to complaints by deferring
responsibility for serious failures to other involved agencies,”
says Pillai. Yet the ACPC is not a statutory entity, she says, and
“therefore cannot be challenged.”

There is no mention here of what has been observed anecdotally
elsewhere: that those who play a part in the child protection
process, when challenged, say the courts are ultimately responsible
for the more serious decisions that may be made.

But there is an attempt to set down what the costs are to
families and the state of legal proceedings involved in child
protection. The costs to the 22 families ranged from £10,000
to £100,000. One family estimated the total cost to all
authorities involved to be £300,000. There is anecdotal
evidence elsewhere that complex child protection cases may cost
upwards of £1m to all parties involved. Pillai suggests that a
figure of £1.6bn quoted to be the current spend on child
protection is only a fraction of the total cost to the public

Pillai claims that there is “a culture of support and empathy
with those making allegations of abuse”, which has evolved
“reactively” out of child abuse scandals.

There have been few attempts to investigate outcomes for
families involved in false allegations of abuse. There is revised
guidance and framework for the assessment of families2
but Pillai is not convinced that, in the situations she describes,
the families and alleged “victims” will fare any better.

Brian Morgan is a health and social care

1 Mary Pillai, “Allegations of abuse: the
need for responsible practice,” Medical Science Law, Vol
42 (2), 2002

2 Department of Health, Framework for the
Assessment of Children in Need and their Families
, The
Stationery Office, 2000; go to:

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