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Child Protection Case Conferences - or Kangaroo Courts

Charles Pragnell  
By Charles Pragnell
August 8, 2006
 
Are Child Protection Conferences lawful proceedings? Charles Pragnell argues that there are serious concerns regarding their legal basis and the procedures and processes involved and whether they are conducted in a just and fair manner in accordance with the principles of natural justice.

The statistics published by the Department of Education and Skills indicate that in the year ending March 2004 there were 37,400 children and their families who were subjected to Child Protection Case Conferences. These were cases in which a social work assessment of 68,500 children had arrived at a supposition that the allegation of abuse was ‘substantiated’. The fact that the cases of 31,100 children were unsubstantiated indicates a very high level of over-reporting of child abuse and false allegations of abuse. It must also be considered that `Substantiation’ by a social worker is a very low level of standard of evidential proof.

General definitions of `substantiations’ and `Not substantiated’ are:

`Substantiation’ – where there was reasonable cause to believe that the child has been, was being, or was likely to be abused, neglected, or otherwise harmed.

Substantiation does not necessarily require sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution and does not imply that treatment or case management was provided:
'Not substantiated’ - where an investigation concluded that there was no reasonable cause to suspect prior, current, or future abuse, neglect, or harm to the child.

Note there is no mention in these definitions of obtaining factual evidence to support the contention or otherwise of abuse or neglect or whether the `evidence’ should meet standards of evidentiary proof of `a balance of probabilities’ or being `clear and convincing’. There is also no requirement to investigate the credibility of the person making the allegation of child abuse or the veracity of the accusation or whether the accusations have been made for mistaken, mischievous, malicious, or monetary reasons.

Following such `substantiations’ the next stage in the child protection process is to hold a Child Protection Conference. Testamentary reports and statements by parents and some professionals attending such Conferences, indicate that they may in fact be little more than Kangaroo Courts.

Usually the principal professionals involved have held a secretive previous meeting known as a `Strategy Meeting’ where the evidence they propose to submit to the CP Conference is discussed and no doubt collusion and confirmatory bias must be suspected. Parents are not invited to attend these Strategy Meetings and are rarely informed about them or are able to obtain information regarding their content or who attended.

Confirmatory bias can often occur and be merely based on delusional or extremist religious beliefs or personal value judgements by individual professionals, such as occurred in the Orkneys, Rochdale, Nottingham, the Isles of Lewis, where allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse of children gained general acceptance without factual proof and in Cleveland where a unproven medical theory of sexual abuse of children was similarly given general acceptance with out challenge or query. This confirmatory bias can often be seen in cases of False and Induced Illness in Children [FII] which has no basis in scientifically-conducted medical research but is widely accepted as a form of child abuse by many professionals, despite their claims to `evidence-based practices’. Often the suggestion of FII begins with a mere whisper by an inexperienced professional or para-professional and then expands and grows exponentially and without being contested or challenged as to its veracity or authenticity. This can be without malice or intent by the professionals involved but they are unwittingly able to reinforce each others incorrect suspicions, which then result in all the professionals involved sincerely believing they have uncovered child abuse. This process of confirmatory bias often involves initial hysteria, counter-transference, transference, folie a deux, and groupthink. Where it involves a number of families in a specific geographic area it leads to mass delusion and societal hysteria particularly if the media are persuaded into accepting the versions of events of the professionals involved.

Parents report that they often only receive the agenda and reports about an hour before the commencement of the Conference, if at all. They are not permitted legal representation or any form of advocacy on their behalf, even though they are in an unfamiliar environment, they may lack skills of self-advocacy and articulation or how to present their evidence. They report overt and covert hostility by those present towards them, with little attempt to make them feel they have a place in the Conference.

Often they are told that the `meeting’ is merely to hold a strictly confidential discussion to explore the issues and that they will have an open-minded forum in which to present their views. One parent was told the meeting was only and `administrative’ meeting to discuss funding to support and assist the family but found that they were ambushed and were faced with a barrage of pre-prepared accusations of child abuse and the meeting ended with a judgement of abuse against the parents and that the parents name would be `listed’ resulting in the loss of a teaching career and permanent termination of contact by the parent with the children and permanent denial of any information concerning the education, health, and welfare of the children.

When the Conferences begin and individual representatives of the child protection agencies present their reports – very often no attempt is made to separate fact from opinion, innuendo or rumour and everything stated by agency representatives is accepted as fact. There are no rules for the submission of evidence, or careful examination as to its veracity, i.e. no rules and protocols for the submission of evidence, no standards of evidential proof and suspicion/opinion being paramount, evidence discussed and decided on by pre-meetings of professionals (so-called Strategy meetings), parents denied legal advice/representation, parents often denied sight of the evidence presented against them, rules of conduct for CPC meetings completely ignored, the evidence and views of opposing professionals disregarded, hearsay evidence presented by some professionals who have no knowledge of the family, and final decisions to place a child's name on the At Risk Register (and thereby labelling the parent as an abuser with all of the social implications and stigmatisation) taken by one legally untrained person. (Although euphemistically they are claimed to be `the decision of the meeting').

One parent describes an Initial CPC Meeting and Review CPC Meetings as follows:

“The `Independent’ Chairman of the CPC was relatively scruffy, grumpy, quite bullying off-record (there was a great deal more unminuted gloves off oral boxing after the formal minuted meeting than in the formal part.) at which he was prone to fly into an aggressive rage against me. In contrast the chairman of the Review CPC’s was extremely controlling of content and always turned up suave, clean shaven, immaculately dressed and completely unflappable and with an initial unpublicised agenda of his own which he was clearly determined to force through the meeting. He behaved exactly like a Welsh hellfire-and-brimstone preacher and was totally domineering and completely unimpressed by any logical argument whatsoever, and seemed obsessed with Satanic Ritual Abuse and sought to distort innocent events into indications of abuse, including satanic ritual abuse.

The CPC’s became totally dysfunctional. Some were boycotted by other professionals and many of them broke up in disarray because of serious disputes between this Chairman and the other professionals who were present. Some of the professionals left the meetings in disgust and anger, as the Chairman was constantly trying to over-rule the opinions and evidence of the professionals or circumvent legal rulings. Eventually he had to de-list the children because he could no longer get a quorum. All the attendees at the Review CPC’s refused to disclose their names, merely stating their affiliations such as “Education”, or “Health”. They could have been Ku Klux Klan in regalia or members of the Spanish Inquisition for all I knew. Often the same professionals were replaced by others from their agencies at subsequent meetings and they had little if any knowledge of what had gone before and had no personal knowledge of the child or the family.”

Many of the professionals and para-professionals attending CPC meetings seem often not to understand what they are undertaking or its legal status or the intense and widespread consequences for the child and family of a false positive finding and that their decisions, can have immediate and devastating effects.

A parent reports that;

“They seemed more terrified about the remote possibility that the child might die or come to serious harm if they did not place the child’s name on the At Risk register with severe recriminations if they decided not to do so, rather than consider the more likely probability that there had been no abuse nor risk of it. The professionals attending were often not experts in their respective fields and had little knowledge of risk assessment processes e.g. nursery nurse, teacher, police constable, health visitor. They were prone to being overwhelmingly influenced by the opinions of more expert professionals such as paediatricians and senior social work managers. This abject fear and terror by the professionals that they could not take any risk of being wrong and subsequently being pilloried if they failed to place the child’s name on the Register, pervaded every meeting”

In effect parents are convicted by these CPC’s and see themselves as such, yet have not had the protections of a fair and just trial.

It is in these CPC meetings where the greatest harm and the most travesties of natural justice are committed against children and parents which are then often subsequently transferred into the civil and criminal court settings.

If a child is placed on the `At Risk’ Register by a Child Protection Conference then one of the principal and most important outcomes is that a `Keyworker’ is appointed (usually a social worker) and a Core Group. Their duties and responsibilities are to provide support and assistance to the child and to the family, marshalling and mobilising resources to provide support for the child ands family, and in doing so to monitor the health and welfare of the child, but parents report that this extremely rarely happens. Many parents report that even where their child has been on the `At Risk’ Register for two years, they have never seen or heard from neither a Keyworker nor any members of the Core Group.

Child Protection Case Conferences are administrative, and arguably quasi-legal, proceedings and as such are subject to the principles of European law and to the principles of `Natural Justice’ in British law.

Where in such CPC proceedings is there natural justice, when the evidence which is submitted by the professionals and para-professionals involved, is not tested and cannot be contested? As long as they continue to exist they are a serious blight on the British system of justice and fair play.

And the final injustice for parents, whose lives are devastated by this chaotic system, is that they are denied any redress in criminal or civil law against those who falsely accuse them or whose decisions are seriously flawed.

Charles Pragnell
August 8, 2006

Diploma in Social Work and Letter of Recognition in Child Care
Expert Witness – Child Protection and Social Care Consultant and Child/Family Advocate.

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