The curious ‘rhetoric case’ of Linda Arlig
This is a post by Sarah Phillimore
Over the past two years I have been repeatedly referred to a document authored by Linda Arlig of the Department of Social Science, the Psychology Section of the University of Orebro, Sweden. It is called ‘The Rhetoric Case: Persecution strategies in a child care order investigation’.
After the most recent of such referrals, by a McKenzie friend who is adamant that professionals routinely lie and are corrupt, I thought I had better actually read it and make up my own mind.
It is a very curious document. I attempted to find out more about Linda Arlig and the University of Orebro because it did not seem to me that this could be a serious academic investigation from a credible institute. I found a copy of her report (first posted December 2013) on the website for the Nordic Committee for Human Rights. At first blush this looks a very professional set up, until perhaps one visits the ‘about’ tab and reads:
In Sweden, and the other Nordic countries, the welfare state has permitted the social authorities to take children into public care. The instrument used is the Law on the ward of Minors (LVU). Thousands of children have been – and are being – taken from their parents and placed in foster homes among complete strangers. These foster homes are often of poor quality and their prime aim is to earn money off the foster children. Foster parents are very well paid to take care of foster children. The families whose children are taken into public care are often lone parents, unemployed and/or on welfare. Immigrant families are very often exposed and affected in this context. The social authorities are very quick to jump to the conclusion that these parents could impossibly be suitable parents. It goes without saying that this is not necessarily the case. The fact that a person does not fit into the very competitive work-market does not make him or her unsuitable as a parent.
In the Nordic countries, quite unlike the Catholic countries of Europe, very little respect is shown for family and private life. The right to respect for private and family life is guaranteed by the UN Declaration of Human Rights and Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
So, a website with a clear and partial agenda, one that might come to a surprise to the Forced Adoption campaigners in the UK who say we stand alone in Europe as a beacon of repression and unfairness to birth parents. But not perhaps John Hemming, who attended a conference with the NCHR President in 2014. So I draw some conclusions about the agenda of the NCHR from the company they keep.
EDIT: I draw even more negative conclusions about the integrity of the NCHR when I see who else they associate with, including Sabine McNeill and Ian Josephs.
The University of Orebro appears to be a real place although my google sleuthing reveals very little else about Linda Arlig.
It may be that some of the difficulties I have with the paper stem from poor translation, despite four people being credited with the translation to English. For e.g. frequent references in the text are made to a ‘social secretary’ which I assume from the context must mean ‘social worker’.
However, poor translation can only account for some of the criticisms I am about to make.
The general point about rhetoric
The purpose of the ‘art of rhetoric’ is to use language to control, steer and influence people. There are various strategies one can adopt in order to further this end, such as using emotional and stirring language or keeping quiet about inconvenient bits of information. It is clearly not a helpful strategy in the child protection field where language should be as clear and precise as possible in order to assist the court make proper findings about what has actually happened or is likely to happen, and thus to make the best order for the chid.
This report in particular
Having printed it off to read – the font on the NCHR site being too small for comfort – I have 98 pages. The Abstract states :
The purpose of this study is to make a critical examination of six official reports in an LVU (Care of Young Persons Act) investigation, to detect the possible occurrence of persecution strategies in the social welfare service reports and, in that case, to define the strategies used and examine whether the investigation complies with the legitimate claims of objectivity and impartiality.
In the official reports, fifty-six different persecution strategies appear. Definitions of the strategies found are produced, and their application in the case will be shown in passages from the reports. The main patterns seen in the investigators’ actions are: “Power defines reality,” and “influencing and persuading the reader”. Two techniques were found in the material, withholding and fabricating, which co-operate to make an investigation defective.
The strategies have been divided into six groups depending on their purpose:
Persuading the reader through language: contains twelve strategies that the investigators use to try to make the reader come to the same conclusion as themselves.
Making the client seem pathological: contains eight strategies that describe the client as peculiar, mentally unstable, aggressive, etc.
Ignoring objectivity aspects: contains seventeen strategies such as, for example, ignoring the client’s perspective, suppressing information, exaggerating information, fabulation, irrelevant statements, etc.
Exercising power and control: contains six strategies that are all connected with the authorities trying to take control of the client’s life.
The authorities know best: comprises five strategies containing blind faith, moralising, self-justification, emphasis on the social authorities’ resources and exceeding the limits of one’s competence.
Feel-think-believe-experience-interpret: contains nine strategies that are influenced by the investigators’ subjective interpretations, arguments, etc.
Throughout the investigations, the client’s perspective is ignored and references to sources are missing. My conclusion is that the investigations are defective, and that they violate the Constitution Act, Chap. 1, Para. 9, containing directives concerning objectivity and impartiality. The documentation of the case contains a considerable number of distinct persecution strategies.
However my report appears to contain reference to only one distinct case; that of Elizabeth and Anne Edner. The first 42 pages are taken up with explaining what is meant by persecution strategies with frequent references to Edvardsson, I assume another Swedish academic.
Lying as a strategy
One particular alleged ‘persecution strategy’ piqued my immediate interest; the assertion that professionals routinely fabricate evidence.
- Arlig asserts that to ’emphasis that the authority knows best, data are [sic] fabricated by means of various persecution strategies’ in order to create ‘monster parents’ [page 9/98].
- Arlig refers further to ‘secret evidence error’ where ‘one keeps evidence secret. If evidence is missing there is fabulation or lies’.
- She cites Moijer (1989) who says that some experts use professional terms to impress their audience or ‘sometimes simply to mislead’
- para 5.4.2. at 34/98 makes explicit reference to the ‘fabulation strategy’ where an investigator ‘generalises, exaggerates, or shifts from making intimations to presenting them as certain facts… this is expressed through words being removed, added, changed…’
- Para 5.4.4. at 35/98 makes explicit reference to the ‘Lying strategy’ where ‘a statement is consciously made although the author knows that it is a lie’.
Thus the immediate and obvious problem of this report is that Arlig is clearly keen to fudge completely the distinction between:
- a deliberate lie, told with conscious knowledge that it is untrue; and
- a statement that is misleading because the wording used is exaggerated, imprecise or incomplete.
That she wishes to fudge this distinction is clear from this paragraph at 35/98
Lies can be presented in different ways… there is the clear lie, which consists of saying something when one knows that it is not the case. But being misleading by concealing the truth can be just as effective …. the result is often the same’.
The fudging of this distinction is a problem for the credibility and integrity of her work. There is an immediate and serious distinction between the two offences. Neither are desirable, but the deliberate telling of a lie is at the highest end of the scale of moral turpitude for a professional. It is an entirely different and bigger problem than the issue of misleading the reader through careless or imprecise use of language.
I cannot then find any further attempt to distinguish between the ‘fabulation’ and the ‘lying’ strategy, but of course, whenever I am referred to this report by those of the Forced Adoption lobby, they invariably cite it as ‘proof’ that social workers routinely ‘lie’ to ‘win’ cases against parents.
The methodology of the report
Is curious to say the least. Arlin comments at 10/98 that ‘the examination of the material was not based on a critical investigative method. One important starting point in this work was not to form any opinion about whether the application for care with the backing of LUV was right or wrong’.
However, the material that she did examine did NOT include the actual application for the order to remove Anne from Elizabeth’s care and that ‘makes it impossible for me to check from where the original information was obtained’.
This makes a nonsense of the whole endeavour. Elizabeth Edner is clearly described in the papers as having serious historic problems with alcohol misuse. Her baby daughter was removed from her care when she was found drunk in charge of her. Attempts were made to keep mother and baby together at a family welfare clinic but Elizabeth absconded and the police had to be involved. Concerns about Elizabeth’s mental state and irrational and aggressive behaviour (including starting fires) continued and Anne remained in foster care.
If we haven’t actually established whether any or all of this is true then it makes a mockery of the exercise that Arlig then undertakes. Despite her starting point of not making any assumptions about whether the application for a care order was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ she goes on to apparently conclude that it was ‘wrong’ judging from the sheer range and scale of the ‘persecution strategies’ that she finds in the paperwork that she does have.
Arlig is a wonderful example of the old saying – to the man with a hammer, everything is a nail. Her eagerness to identify such ‘persecution strategies’ is at times comical. One report about Elizabeth expresses concern that she has repeatedly telephoned the chairman of the social welfare committee at night, behaviour described as ‘desperate and boundless’. Arlig is able to identify from this concern [72/98]
… an antidemocratic strategy, since the committee members appear to have no office telephones and it is democratic right to contact politicians. The idea in the text appears to be that one should not make use of one’s democratic rights or act democratically in one’s own defence’.
Calling a local politician frequently, at night, presumably at their own home is hardly a convincing example of a rational exercise of one’s ‘democratic right’.
Arlig is entirely unconvinced that anyone should have had any concerns that Elizabeth described the police who tried to intervene after she locked herself in a room with Anne as coming in black clothes ‘like black witches’. This is explained [63/98] as ‘normal’ and simply an example of language as metaphor. Maybe. Maybe not. But I fail to understand how a social worker writing in a report that they found this reaction to the police troubling is automatically indulging in a ‘persecution strategy’.
Some good points
The tragedy about this report is that there are some good and useful discussions about the way in which social workers can and do present evidence in an unhelpful way. All legal practitioners will be sadly familiar with the social worker who exceeds his or her competence in offering for e.g., a diagnosis of a psychiatric condition, or is over confident in their opinions, or who has missed out some important piece of information that puts a parents’ behaviour in a clearer context.
I fully accept that there needs to be more understanding of how and why parents can react in ways which social workers perceive as aggressive or violent. I accept there needs to be more understanding of how the extreme stresses of child protection investigations very often can impact badly on parents and not allow them to present themselves consistently as ‘their best selves’.
But this report is not the way to go about it. The evidence presented about Elizabeth Edner is sadly clear. Accusing the social workers of adopting various deliberate ‘strategies’ against her to make their case is surely an argument that can only be made if there had been investigation of the primary facts – her alcohol misuse, her poor mental health – and those primary facts had been shown to be false or grossly exaggerated. Rather, the snippets of the investigation that Arlig cites appear to show a the compassion of the social workers, and their attempts to see things from Elizabeth’s perspective; recognising the stress that was upon her and how this might impact on her behaviour.
But the bottom line appears to be that this was a mother who put her daughter at immediate physical harm due to being drunk when responsible for her primary care. Arlig continually criticises the social workers for presenting a picture of Elizabeth Edner as an aggressive and mentally ill alcoholic – despite the clear information presented that this was actually what she was.
The sad irony is that a piece of work designed to show case the dangers of rhetoric is itself just another example of it.
EDIT: HHJ Horton’s judgment concerning Hampshire CC in November 2015 deals with what he calls an ‘exceptional’ case of deliberate lying on oath and alteration of reports by social workers. Let’s hope he is right about the ‘exceptional’ bit.