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I wrote on Monday about the many desperate parents who have app-roached me after losing their children to social services. One thing that they all have in common is shock at how quickly the system seems to decide against them, and at how doggedly it sticks to that view despite all evidence to the contrary. Some parents find that minor issues are magnified until the conclusions reached are out of all proportion. The opposite also seems to hold true: some children come to terrible harm because the system systematically underestimates the risk to them.
Why does this happen? Eileen Munro, a reader in social policy at the London School of Economics and the author of Effective Child Protection, says that child protection work inevitably involves uncertainty, ambiguity and fallibility. She believes that it is human nature to form a view based on first impressions, and stick to it. This has a devastating impact in child protection work, she says, in that professionals hold on to their beliefs about a family despite new evidence that challenges them. It can be equally harmful whether they are over or underestimating the degree of the risk to the child. They may continue to believe parents are doing well, even though there are successive reports of the child's being distressed or injured. Innocent parents wrongly judged abusive can face the frightening experience of being unable to shake the professionals' conviction, however much counter-evidence they produce.
The risk of groupthink makes it all the more important that decisions are transparent and open to review. We all know of the tragic deaths of children such as Victoria Climbie, who with hindsight should have been saved. We know much less about the tragedies of children wrongly separated from their families, because of the secrecy of the system.
There are several types of allegation that are almost impossible for parents to disprove. One is emotional abuse. You can see why the category exists. Ill-treatment comes in many forms, not all of which leave visible scars. But in that nebulous phrase lurks the potential for injustice. In the past ten years there has been a 50per cent increase in the number of parents or carers accused of emotional abuse. It now accounts for 21 per cent of all children registered as needing protection, up from 14 per cent in 1997. Yet the term has no strict definition in British law.