Children were harmed by professionals failure to test false allegations of abuse

A recent English family court judgement criticised the actions of various professionals in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse made by two children in a cross border contact case. The children had been living in Scotland but were retained in England by their mother after holidays in summer of 2014. She had moved to England to live with a new partner.

Mr Justice MacDonald found that the actions of certain professionals on both sides of the Border actively contributed to the difficulties in assessing the evidence, ‘materially prejudiced the welfare of both children’ and contributed to the “significant” emotional harm the children had suffered.

These breaches included:

  • The social worker unquestioningly accepted the mother’s account and her failure to make enquiries of the father, the extended families, school, doctors or local authorities “was particularly egregious in circumstances where such enquires would have revealed a fundamentally different picture to that being painted by the mother.”
  •  A failure (by social workers, Detective Constables, Detective Sergeants and teachers) to keep accurate records of what was said by the mother and the children, resulting in accounts of what the children said that were diametrically opposed.  This included both Scottish and English police officers.
  • A repeated failure by numerous professionals to interview the children in accordance with the ABE [equivalent of Scottish Joint Investigative Interview] Guidelines, in particular repeated questioning of one child in the presence of the other child and their mother, and the repeated use of highly leading questions.
  • A failure by agencies to coordinate their intervention: between 11 August 2014 and 29 July 2015. Taking the CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mentl Health] intervention into account, the children were questioned by no less than nineteen professionals on 44 occasions.
  • That ahead of any findings or criminal convictions in respect of the allegation, the CAMHS intervention extended to therapeutic intervention for one child by three psychiatrists and over 29 group therapy sessions and six sessions for the other child on the basis that they had been abused as alleged.

Mr Justice MacDonald quoted the conclusion of the children’s guardian surveying the conduct of professionals in this case that “‘It is as if a sort of hysteria took over and prevented people from asking certain questions’.  I cannot help but agree.”

The woman had asked the court to rule that the man who raised the action to return him to Scotland where he had been the boy’s primary carer had raped her and abused the children.

The judge concluded that every allegation the woman and children made against the man was false. She had ‘told lies’ and ‘coached or influenced’ the children – now aged 10 and six – into making false allegations. 

“In August 2014 the mother manufactured alarm using a falsified version of past events in an attempt to avoid returning the children to Scotland.  Using a combination of emotional pressure, inappropriate exposure to adult discussions and, on occasion, coaching, the mother proceeded to recruit the children to her cause. With the aid of repeated and persistent poor practice by a range of professionals the mother further succeeded in enclosing the narrative she had created within a hermetically sealed bubble, thereby succeeding in preventing professionals carrying out the checks that would have revealed that the allegations that were being made first by the mother, and then by the children required, at the very least, a critical and questioning appraisal.  Indeed, by reason of their almost entirely unquestioning approach towards the mother, a number of professionals simply acquiesced to their confinement in that bubble.  Had professionals adhered to well established guidance and procedure they would have discovered that the allegations lacked credibility.

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.”   

Mr Justice MacDonald made the ruling in February but its publication was delayed until this month because the father was facing criminal charges connected with the allegations in Scotland. The Crown Office has indicated proceedings against the man have been dropped.