Presumed Guilty

I recently spoke at a weekend conference for parents who have
been accused of physically harming their child but who deny abuse
and believe there may be a medical condition that has caused their
child’s condition – most likely the brittle bone disease
osteogenesis imperfecta (OI).

There were 12 families present at the event, organised by the
Osteogenesis Imperfecta Accused Parents Support Group, and some had
come with extended family members and friends. Nearly all the
parents had their children removed when the injuries first came to
light. Some had eventually obtained a diagnosis of OI after
battling with medical authorities for many years.

Some had their children returned to them eventually while others
lost their children to adoption or other alternative long-term care
arrangements. Some parents present were currently involved in care
proceedings. In some cases the court had found that one or both
parents had harmed their child, although all the parents present
denied knowingly doing so.

Social workers for such families face significant dilemmas.
Councils have a statutory duty to help ensure children’s safety and
to protect them from significant harm. However, under the Children
Act 1989, they are also meant to help support families and keep
children with their birth parents or within their extended family
where possible. When children sustain serious injuries that medical
opinion deems non-accidental but where parents deny responsibility,
social workers and courts often have to make difficult decisions
regarding children’s future safety and welfare.

While acknowledging this difficulty I found myself increasingly
disheartened during the conference by the families’ experience of
social work involvement. Leaving aside the issue of whether parents
are innocent or guilty of harming their child non-accidentally, all
families are entitled to be treated by social workers with

As social workers we have no excuse for not knowing how to work
with such families. There have been clear government guidelines
over many years and even a whole Department of Health publication
devoted to the topic.(1) This contains a list of 15 principles that
should guide social workers in approaching families where there are
child protection concerns, reprinted in Working Together to
Safeguard Children.(2) The effectiveness of working in partnership
with parents has been found to be the most important factor in
helping to keep children safe.

It was then with dismay that I listened to family after family
describing social work involvement that fell well short of good
practice. Social workers were time and again described as:

  • Being judgmental towards parents from the outset, often
    assuming guilt before any formal finding of the court or criminal
  • Being seemingly oblivious to the emotional and psychological
    impact that the child protection process imposed upon them as
    parents and offering little or no support.
  • Using jargon and acronyms and assuming parents would understand
    their meaning.
  • Putting seemingly arbitrary limitations upon contact with their
  • Making illogical decisions, for example removing a baby while
    allowing a slightly older child under two years old to remain at
  • Taking a very controlling and often confrontational
  • Failing to treat parents with respect.
  • Not giving parents information about the child protection
    process or what might happen.
  • Ruling out the possibility of having their child placed with
    kinship carers if extended family members voiced doubt about the
    parents’ guilt – usually before the court had made any
  • Seeking only negatives and not being receptive to positives
    regarding the parents or their support network.
  • Warning parents they would only get their child back if one of
    them admitted responsibility for the injuries.

The impact upon parents was profound. They reported feeling in a
state of shock and disbelief when their child’s injuries first came
to light. As well as having to accept that their child was
seriously unwell they found themselves accused of causing the harm.
None had any previous experience of the child protection system and
they found themselves feeling confused and powerless. There was
also a sense of feeling ashamed and of being guilty until proven
innocent, which in practice usually proved impossible.

Even parents whose children had returned to their care many
years ago said the effects of the experience still dominated their
lives and, in some cases, the lives of their children. For two
families who had lost children to adoption there was particular
distress as they felt they would never be able to undo what they
viewed as an injustice, whatever evidence might come to light.

These families live across England. But whichever local
authority handled their case, the same complaints against social
workers appeared to arise, although families from two local
authorities had more positive experiences. Two families reported at
least some helpful contact with social workers. One family had
found a hospital social worker very supportive but her involvement
was relatively brief. Another family experienced hostility from
hospital medical staff when their child was first diagnosed with
fractures but found the local authority social worker supportive
and understanding.

Overall, however, it is very worrying that the families’
experience of social workers was so unremittingly negative. The
adversarial context of the court process often pushes workers and
families into increasingly defensive positions and core social work
values of respect and being non-judgmental may be lost. Skills that
workers would employ with other service users may be abandoned in
such situations. (3)

When considering rehabilitation in situations where children
have been injured non-accidentally but where neither parent accepts
responsibility, a clear balanced assessment is required. Special
skills may need to be developed to undertake appropriate work post
assessment to allow at least some children to return home

As long ago as 1992 Elaine Farmer highlighted the anomaly that
councils often develop specialist teams regarding the fostering and
adoption of children who are in the care system, but rarely develop
specialist resources to help reunify children with their
families.(4)  Even when such specialist skills are lacking,
however, families have a right to expect a caring and professional
service from social workers, even in situations where parents may
have injured their children.

BOXTEXT: John Gumbleton
is a child protection consultant and family therapist in private
practice. He specialises in assessments where children have been
harmed or are deemed at risk, but where parents deny
responsibility. He also undertakes therapeutic work to help
rehabilitate children to their carers.

BOXTEXT: abstract
Social workers have clear government guidelines regarding
developing partnerships with parents in child protection cases.
This article reports the experiences of a relatively small group of
parents who have been accused by professionals of harming their
children. In most cases the parents have not found social workers
either helpful or supportive. The article argues that even where
adults may have harmed their children they are still entitled to be
treated with dignity and respect.
1 Department of Health, The Challenge of Partnership in Child
Protection: Practice Guide, HMSO, 1995
2 DoH, Working Together to Safeguard Children, HMSO, 1999
3 J Gumbleton, “The re-unification of children in serious child
protection cases”, Context, No 74, pp 2-5, 2004
4 E Farmer, “Restoring children on court orders to their families:
lessons for practice”, Adoption & Fostering, Vol 16, No

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