I first wrote about this on my website www.childprotectionresource.online in February 2018. Online discussion re-ignited again following the publication of D (A child – parental alienation) (Rev 1)  EWFC B64 (19 October 2018).
HHJ Bellamy said at paragraph 212 of his judgment about the social worker in the case:
“Another significant criticism of Miss S’s report is that it appears to be her approach not that a child’s disclosures should be heard and taken seriously but that they should always be believed and action taken on the assumption that they are true. She made the point that D has been consistent in his disclosures. It is clear that she has not considered the possibility that what she regards as consistency could, in fact, simply be rehearsed. In her oral evidence Miss S was very open about the fact that she has not considered whether D is being untruthful….”
In the following online discussions this was universally criticised. However, such criticism is not reflected in my day to day practice. My most recent case involving allegations made by a child, involved cross examination of a teacher and a social worker where both told me they were ‘trained’ to ‘always believe the child’.
This is extremely concerning. If it really is part of the training of front line professionals who record children’s allegations, such training is dangerously defective and must cease immediately.
‘Disclosure’ means ‘the secret fact that is made known’. Therefore, to call what a child says or alleges a ‘disclosure’ is to assume the truth of what is said at the outset. Any investigation which begins from an assumption that was is said is true, risks corruption and failure.
The Cleveland and Orkneys scandals of 1987 and 1991 respectively, illustrate the consequences of pursuing allegations of sexual abuse from a starting point of truth – children sobbing in interviews, being told they would be allowed to go ‘when you tell us what daddy did to you’.
So why now forget the lessons of history? The passage of time may have dimmed the historical warnings. Further, the recent policy imposed upon the police; that they should ‘believe the account given’ when someone makes an allegation.
In October 2016 Sir Richard Henriques reviewed the Metropolitan Police investigations into historical allegations of child sexual abuse against ‘persons of public prominence’ . He recommended the word ‘victim’ to describe a complainant should cease. How can any investigation that follows a commitment to ‘believe’ a ‘victim’ be fearless or impartial?
The 2015 Guidance about interviewing children is clear and sensible “If a child reports, following a conversation you have initiated or otherwise, that they are being abused and neglected, you should listen to them, take their allegation seriously, and reassure them that you will take action to keep them safe.”
Legal Twitter noted with concern the February 2018 survey from the NSPCC to ‘inform a new resource to help professionals deal with disclosure’. Family lawyer David Burrows reminded us of paragraph 33 of the judgment in AS v TH (False Allegations of Abuse) (Rev 1)  EWHC 532 (Fam) (11 March 2016):
“I have in this case heard extensive evidence from those professionals to whom the children made allegations and from those professionals who subsequently assessed the children and/or investigated those allegations (I pause to note that despite the fact that the use of the term “disclosure” to describe a statement or allegation of abuse made by a child has been deprecated since the Cleveland Report due to it precluding the notion that the abuse might not have occurred (see para 12.34(1)), every professional who gave evidence in this case (except the Children’s Guardian) used the term “disclosure” to describe what the children had said to them).”
Investigations begin with the first recording of a child’s allegations – so teachers and social workers are often the first people outside the family to hear them. The interventions made at this stage can set the whole course of an investigation. Establishing what actually happened to a child can become dangerously obscured when interviews of a child become no more than a forum for getting the child to repeat ‘the truth’. Children, just like adults, can be subject to outside pressure, can get confused, make mistakes, exaggerate, or deliberately lie. Children are more susceptible than most adults to pressure from an interviewer and often have more desire to ‘please’ their interrogator by saying what they believe the adult wants to hear.
I have often seen lengthy ABE interviews of small children who are required to remember what they told mummy or the social worker some time before. This is a clear breach of the ABE guidelines and requirement for free narrative recall. The ABE interview is not the place to get the child to repeat ‘the truth’ on film.
The saddest part of one ABE interview I have seen was to witness the child sternly told that she ‘must not lie’ when the child gave an account that was clearly part of some imaginative play. It was not a ‘lie’ – she was doing what children delight in doing; playing by making up stories.
Another case involved two siblings who offered various accounts. These accounts were not only often inconsistent when compared with each other, they were internally inconsistent. I asked the social worker who said she proceeded from position that she believed what children told her was true – which child did she chose to believe? And which account of which child? For only one of them could be ‘true’. Her answer – when eventually it came – was ‘I believe both’.
All of us involved in cases involving allegations of child abuse will have similar horror stories to tell of the botched ABE interview, or the assumptions that were made at the very outset of investigations that destroyed any chance of obtaining secure evidence.
If your investigator can ‘believe’ you – they can also ‘disbelieve’ you. The dangers are apparent. Children rely on us to keep them safe. And to be kept safe they need to be listened to, taken seriously and given the gift of efficient and effective investigation into the behaviour of adults who have hurt them.