There has been a great deal of talk recently about police investigations which start from a premise of ‘believing’ the ‘victim’ and a great deal of reasonable concern about what happens to those investigations if they begin from the premise that the ‘victim’ is telling the truth.
See for example the independent review carried out by Sir Richard Henriques in October 2016 of the Met’s investigations into ‘non-recent sexual abuse allegations against persons of public prominence’ . He is clear that use of the word ‘victim’ to describe a complainant at the outset of an investigation should cease. This terminology arose out of the stated policy of the College of Policing in 2016 that when someone makes an allegation of crime, “the police should believe the account given”.
As the review makes clear – this is a nonsense. To begin an investigation from a starting point of ‘belief’ is to corrupt the investigative process itself. How can any investigation that follows a commitment to ‘believe’ a ‘victim’ be carried out fearlessly and impartially? A botched investigation into serious allegations has very significant consequences for not merely the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator but for society as a whole.
The impact of ‘I believe’ on family cases
It is clear the the culture of ‘I believe’ is not confined to criminal investigations but still operating in family cases. The consequences here are no less severe, as while family cases may not involve a loss of liberty they often involve what many would perceive as a far worse punishment – the loss of one’s children.
An interesting Twitter conversation was started by David Burrows on February 1st 2018, responding to a request to complete a survey for the NSCPCC to ‘inform a new resource to help professionals deal with disclosure’. David pointed out that it was shame the word ‘disclosure’ was used in this context, given the lessons we all should have learned by now from history.
@ResFamilyLaw exactly what was said over 30 yrs ago 'in the Cleveland Report due to it precluding the notion that the abuse might not have occurred (see para 12.34(1))' (per MacDonald J in https://t.co/LNi4H4YbOW at 
— David Burrows (@dbfamilylaw) February 1, 2018
Paragraph 33 of the judgment in AS v TH (False Allegations of Abuse) (Rev 1)  EWHC 532 (Fam) (11 March 2016) says this:
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).
Those of us old enough to dimly remember the Cleveland and Orkneys scandals of 1987 and 1991 respectively, can remember the horrible consequences of pursuing allegations of sexual abuse from a starting point of ‘well, they MUST be true” – children sobbing in interviews, being told they would be allowed to go ‘when you tell us what daddy did to you’.
But the twitter conversation was a sobering reminder for me that I am a lot older than I care to remember – these events are now nearly 30 years old and for the new generation of social workers are now part of history. We weren’t even sure if it now formed part of the social work training
I doubt it – because when I asked a professor if undergraduates received training for section 47 investigations he told me this was irrelevant.
— Hilary Searing (@HilarySearing) February 1, 2018
It feels incredible that ABE training doesn't have Cleveland running through it like words in a stick of rock, but I honestly dont think it does
— suesspicious minds (@suesspiciousmin) February 1, 2018
This is concerning on so many levels. What does ‘disclosure’ mean? It is ‘the act of making new or secret information known’ . To call allegations or comments by a child ‘disclosure’ means you start the investigation from a perspective of ‘belief’ – exactly the position decried in the Henriques report.
And are children any safer because of this? Quite the reverse. Botched investigations in family cases risk allowing dangerous adults remaining as carers for vulnerable children and/or innocent adults being found as a matter of fact on the balance of probabilities. that they are a child abuser. Either way, the truth of a child’s experience becomes obscured when interviews of a child become no more than a forum for getting the child to repeat ‘the truth’, rather than an opportunity to test the credibility of what is alleged. Children, just like adults, can be subject to outside pressure, can get confused, make mistakes, exaggerate – or even outright lie. Children are more susceptible than most adults to pressure from an interviewer and often have more of a desire to ‘please’ their interrogator by saying what they believe the adult wants to hear. See for example with regard to children’s suggestibility, the work of Professor Ceci.
It seems that use of ‘disclosure’ to describe allegations is a persistent and serious problem.
When I used to ask other profs not to use the word disclosure I could feel their displeasure and anger that I was somehow not believing their concerns,the fear out there was https://t.co/R7letaPkgB it any wonder we have become so risk averse.The sun has a lot to answer for.
— Summitviews (@Summitviews1) February 1, 2018
I considered further the judgment in AS v TH:
"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." 2015 Guidance.
— Sarah Phillimore (@SVPhillimore) February 4, 2018
"…social workers should be conscious of the presumption that abuse has taken place can have damaging repercussions for the child… [But] llow level of alertness to the possibility of sexual abuse may deter children from trusting adults sufficiently to reveal the fact of abuse"
— Sarah Phillimore (@SVPhillimore) February 4, 2018
David throws down the gauntlet – time to grapple with this issue?
See MacDo J at . Perhaps time for a serious mini-campaign to stop social workers etc seeking 'disclosures' from children, and from the allegedly abused being described as 'victims'. Neither term applies in law or fairness till a case is proved or their is a true admission
— David Burrows (@dbfamilylaw) February 5, 2018
All of us who are involved in investigations of abuse against children will have horror stories to tell of the botched ABE interview, the assumptions that were made at the very outset of investigations that set the course of proceedings very badly awry. It is high time that we tackled firmly any approach to any investigation that commences on a subjective assessment of ‘belief’. Because – 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 efficient and effective investigation into the behaviour of adults who have hurt them.
As Judi Evans put it
It’s a fundamental for anyone in child protection system to understand what went wrong in Cleveland, to understand why we do what we do now.
— Judi Evans (@Judi_evansi) February 1, 2018