Mind your language – whats the problem with ‘disclosure’?

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.

Paragraph 33 of the judgment in AS v TH (False Allegations of Abuse) (Rev 1) [2016] 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

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.

I considered further the judgment in AS v TH:

David throws down the gauntlet – time to grapple with this issue?

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

21 thoughts on “Mind your language – whats the problem with ‘disclosure’?

  1. David BURROWS

    Many thanks Sarah. This ‘disclosure’ thing is not just dressing. As MacDonald J fears, it is at the root of attitudes to children interviews and the damage it can cause, as you say. Cleveland Ch 12 is very clear. It is entitled ‘Listening to the Child’ and summarises the evidence of a number of the child psychiatrists who gave evidence to the inquiry in 1987 (over 390 years ago). The purpose of the interview must be ‘to hear what the child has to say’ (§12.12) where the child is of sufficient ‘age and understanding’ (§12.10). The interviewer must use open questions (§§12.24; 12.34.4) and understand that there may be a variety of reasons why the child is speaking or is not willing to: (1) the abuse has occurred; (2) the child does not want to speak or is in denial; or (3) the abuse has not occurred (§12.25). Interviewers must have an open mind (§12.34.3: which makes the term ‘disclosure’ such bad practice). Those conducting interviews must be trained (§12.34.2&11).

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      thank you for starting off a necessary conversation! I am still seeing, in 2018, cases pushed off course by poor investigation at the outset. As Henriques also commented – this goes way beyond terminology. To call someone a ‘victim’ or an allegation a ‘disclosure’ at the very beginning, sets your ship on course for somewhere you might not want to sail to.

      But are you really saying the Cleveland Inquiry was 390 years ago?!? i am older than I thought!

  2. looked_after_child

    I see a clash in cultures as much as anything.
    The NSPCC particularly wrap themselves ‘in the flag of child protection’ . They see themselves as protectors and no-one else can be trusted with this, or so it seems. There are two problems with this – they need to raise cash ( so they sensationalise and simplify ) and they also drive national policy and guidance.

    They also seem very good at collecting info and very bad at analysing it – eg Childline information seems to be mainly sensationalised statements? I can say hand on heart their policy people knew nothing a year ago about neurodisabilities and they had no interest in learning. They also seem to have no interest in any form institutional neglect or abuse. ( a very uncomfortable subject for all children’s charities I’m guessing). A number of charities have become brands and in pursuit of growing and keeping the brand strong they have lost sight of the ethics involved.

    To be honest I think this really should be challenged at every level because this approach is harmful to children.

  3. looked_after_child

    I could not then and cannot still get my head around the fact they could’ent see the need to make a connection between disability and child protection – their thinking just seemed so liner – they’ve drawn the lines and everything ‘ child protection’ related must fit within the lines they’ve drawn. -that is why they are very comfortable using this parent blaming language.

    Sorry for letting off steam on this but….

  4. looked_after_child

    …SocialWorkTutor and his legion of followers did not occur in a vacuum – they are a product of organisations like the NSPCC who are relentlessly negative about parents. There seem to be no boundaries at all to the use of this kind of language and somehow that is in the best interests of children?

    1. EJ

      “relentlessly negative about parents”

      What a greatly apt phrase to describe the attitude that has soaked through the dementedly hysterical safeguarding arena for way too long. All common sense has been lost for a long time, however I do not think it’s accidental, I believe it has been very deliberate from the top down.

  5. Pingback: Listening to children and ‘disclosure’ | dbfamilylaw

  6. looked_after_child

    I would like them to get to grips with human rights – this would be a massive cultural change I think because they come from a very different place of – Me -good, You-bad -I’m the expert, D’ont dare challenge AND KNOW YOUR PLACE.

    1. HelenSparkles

      I can’t stand the NSPCC and their emotive fund raising attempts, there is some good research on their site, but they over simplify child protection and demonise families. They have been treading that path for a while, others may follow and have.

      1. Angelo Granda

        The problem with all organisations of do-gooders e.g. social services,NSPCC,OXFAM is that, whilst they mainly attract angels ,they also draw many with unquenchable machiavellian Instincts and it is the latter types (the donkeys) who rise through the ranks and become the powerful voices and directors of operations.
        I predict that whatever alterations to front line practices they are discussing and researching will end in it being even more easy for them to liquidate families.You could say they go through the motions but avoid the real issues.

  7. looked_after_child

    ……………Child protection social work needs to reject its assigned role of disciplining the poor in the name of child well-being…………..Child protection can do more than the dirty work of neoliberal social hygiene. …
    We ( social workers) need to trust our practice skills. We need to better understand how the big picture of social power and resources pans out in the lives of citizen service users, including the effects of isolation, racism, prejudice, stigma and shame. We can do this by building trust rather than creating fear; by getting close to the lives of people rather than assessing their danger from a distance. This respectful engagement allows insight into the way in which pressures associated with poverty impact upon communication, choices, relationships, resistance and the possibilities for change (Krumer-Nevo, 2017). We need to listen and speak our truth – not somebody else’s clinical language.

  8. Angelo Granda

    By the use of such terms as disclosure regarding false allegations, malicious referrals and rigged interviews with toddlers and other children all of which occur at a very early stage even before the most basic factual investigations have taken place and checks made with parents, we can see how cases enter cloud -cuckoo land .When they use misleading terms ,this is why I often say that the lawyers and management are very experienced in deceit and why me and others describe the malpractice as disguising opinion and hearsay evidence as fact.
    The interesting post above tells me we are not wrong. Basically very often right from the start ,cases enter the realms of fiction as in Cleveland because they are not bona fide or conducted correctly.
    There are other ones I can think about such as claiming in statements that parents are IN DENIAL. That assumes allegations and reports are forensically correct, confirmed ones when they are not. Parents may have denied them and proven them wrong but the court will be told they are in denial rather than the truth which is that the LA knows allegations are wrong but are in denial themselves.
    So when procedure is flouted and the LA investigate the case is poisoned long before barristers enter the fray. Cases should be thrown out early on . As per the human rights to a fair hearing mentioned just above. This abuse of language is failure to tell the truth. It is dishonest and it is calculated deceit.It is at the root of all that is wrong with the system as David claims( not just dressing). Will it ever trickle down to front-line lawyers? Let’s hope it does now!

  9. Angelo Granda

    Incidentally ,the post talks of victims but very often there is no victim in reality. No-one has complained but concerns have been raised about children and that is all. Nothing amiss has really occurred in a family but the LA sets about family’s solely on the basis of fears of what may have happened in other cases, predication of antecedents, character assessments and so on. The LA is the complainant not the children.

  10. Angelo Granda

    They merely conduct a witch hunt which I have described before as ‘ McCarthyite’ . The terms like denial and disclosure are very, very close to the type of language used in those hearings in America back in the 40’s and 50’s. Check out the transcripts. They accuse people of being ‘culpable’ and ‘guilty’ of talking actions or saying things which aren’t the slightest bit wrong !

  11. looked_after_child

    Same comment in two threads just I think it applies in both – I was recently made aware of this material prepared by adoptive parents.


    It portrays a very ugly picture that all parents of children who enter Care are neglectful and abusive. Nowhere was the point made that children enter Care for lots of reasons often to do with poverty and or illness and the lack of resources to address these.
    I spoke to the chair of an adopters and special guardianship group about it in the interim. She was pretty horrified and would have preferred a film that showed the results of abuse and its impact on a child and family as this is verifiable unlike “virtual reality”.
    Her main point was false narratives just create distrust and this is bad for children.

    Why are there no checks and balances to prevent this happening?

  12. looked_after_child

    ..and you would’ent be able to produce this kind of info about any other group with committing a hate crime, yet if your child enters Care this is what you can expect. Innovation Funding was provided to the organisation that produced this.

  13. Angelo Granda

    Sarah and David, another misleading term to look out for in your day-to-day work is ‘CLEAR EVIDENCE’.
    L.A. lawyers will refer to clear evidence but when you see those two words, examine it closely and you will probably find it is shoddy at best and by no means conclusive.
    Yet the impression given is that the evidence is rock solid.Hope this helps.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      Thanks for the tip Angelo, but I do not rely on my opponent to tell me about the strength or otherwise of their evidence. That is a decision for me, after a careful review of all the evidence. That is what my job entails.

  14. Angelo Granda

    But why is it that Police and professionals acting for the LA can access,question and tape interviews with children but parents and respondent lawyers cannot? It seems the gags are only removed from the child once their legal parent leaves the room. Children are not to be interviewed by Police formally without the attendance of his or her parents as a rule. I understand it happens quite regularly under the auspices of the CA.
    Therefore if we want a Judge to make a decision after a careful review of ALL the evidence , surely the parents together with their barrister should also be allowed to see and question children in order to be fair. They would then be able to angle the questions in any way they want the same as professionals. Perhaps ” Do you want to go home to Mum?” or “Do you love your family? or ” Has any one abused you or hurt you in care?” This is what the Judge should want to know but professionals always seem to want to cover the children’s likes and wants up!

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      How on earth can a child be interviewed about allegations of sexual abuse by one or other parent with that parent in the room?!? that makes no sense at all.

      And to say a parent should be allowed to ask ‘do you want to go home to mum’ doesn’t seem very helpful. Most children will say ‘yes’. That doesn’t mean its safe or it should happen.


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