Judge slams deficient social work assessment in ‘extraordinary’ case

Social worker's actions were "most acute" example of several agencies' failure to interrogate mother's claims against father

Photo: tashatuvango/Fotolia

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.

‘Unquestioning acceptance’

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.”

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7 Responses to Judge slams deficient social work assessment in ‘extraordinary’ case

  1. bob June 28, 2016 at 8:11 pm #

    So what’s the punishment for the mother who filed false reports and not only made the false allegations but instigated the harm to the children?

    • Mel July 1, 2016 at 9:29 pm #

      I totally agree with you Bob! Social workers are not meant to be investigative police. Also, where was this ‘amazing’ father, that he didn’t catch wind of his children being in care, and contact the worker? Thirdly, what type of fear-based relationship would these kids have with their father, when their mother was constantly telling them these terrible things had, or will happen. Would be pretty traumatic for them!

      • Eric Tarkington July 18, 2016 at 8:24 am #

        Mel, social workers most certainly are investigators and have virtually unregulated power to call on police for immediate action. Reading the article, we find that the charges were unfounded and damaging to father and children, so this good father was barred from knowing the location of his children and denied contact. One can only hope that you will never suffer the pain and indignity suffered by this father and children in the hands of a biased, draconian social worker. And yes, the typical father is amazing — no sarcastic quotation marks required!

  2. Steve June 29, 2016 at 6:32 pm #

    Nice of the children’s Guardian to be wise after the event. When we’re they appointed in the process? Understand the shortcomings in not pursuing rigorous inter-agency investigation and individual and open questioning of children and the opportunity of other agencies police & education in that questioning and enquiry role.

  3. Tom J June 30, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    ‘it is as if a sort of hysteria took over’

    I find that there are certain social work discourses that often lead professionals to lose all reason. A common example is saying ‘but the father was domestically abusive’. This can lead to the mother to be viewed solely as a victim with the dichotomy of father bad- mother good. The serious case review into the tragic death of Blake Fowler is case in point.

    However, these discourses are so strong that professionals can be afraid to challenge them for fear of not taking the ‘bad thing’ seriously enough e.g. I see many parents being given the label ‘disguised compliant’ in a way that is totally unjust- a parent who tells a room of fifteen professionals that she did take her child to the dentist when in fact she did not, is not necessarily disguised compliant- there could be other explanations- context and critical thinking is everything.

  4. Dave July 4, 2016 at 8:26 am #

    It was nice to see Tom J’s reasoned and thoughtful contribution after some quite odd ‘leaping to the defence’ responses at the beginning.

    Investigating is part of social work and simply to accept as true the first version of events that you hear seems to me to be poor practice that is likely to let down children at some point. Verifying the truth of what you have been told does not mean you cannot properly work with that person or with the other parties involved.

    Finally, Mel raises an interesting point when saying

    “Thirdly, what type of fear-based relationship would these kids have with their father, when their mother was constantly telling them these terrible things had, or will happen”

    This, and less sinister reactions by one parent against another used to be called “implacable opposition” and in the end, it can be a fact that has to be dealt with, and resolved on the basis of what is best for the child – to see the other parent with all that going on, or not to see them and be spared being embroiled in the conflict. There is no standard approach – it depends upon the child and the circumstances.

  5. Eric Tarkington July 18, 2016 at 9:02 am #

    Bob, you ask a good question. It is distressing in a modern democracy that the family courts can hide behind a veil of secrecy that protects the acts of the court and government agencies from scrutiny. The court’s decisions are not for the gaze of the ordinary subject of the realm. I dismiss the proposition that the court has an overriding concern for the privacy of parents or children. In evidence of my point, please note that the publicly available findings in this case demonstrate that very precise details of cases can be fully revealed without disclosing the identities of any of the people involved. The findings do not bind anyone to any particular action.

    We shall never know what consequence the court imposed on this woman for her false allegations, but we know from the testimony of many experts and victims that women typically receive nothing more than a dignified judicial tongue-lashing for such crimes. It is entirely possible that the court imposed no sanction that matters to this woman, and the father and children may very well remain in her ungentle hands. It makes me very sorry to know that the court often encourages evil in this way.

    Experts in treatment of parental alienation say that it is very treatable with firm action by the court, including change of custody and supervised visitation by the alienating parent, but one certainly cannot rely on the court to act quickly and firmly.