Monday, 28 September 2009

Do the recommendations of the Badman Report amount to a plan of mass screening for child abuse?

The above thesis has been advanced several times by Sharon, a regular poster to this Blog. She is concerned that if local authority officers visit every home educating family, carrying out so-called "Safe and Well" checks, then there will be many false positives. That is to say that evidence of abuse or neglect will be spotted where none exists. It is a bit like screening for cancer of the cervix. Some women will be told that they have pre-cancerous changes when they don't. The more checks one conducts, the more of these false positives there will be. In essence, Sharon appears to be worried that if lots of checks are carried out on home educators, then lots of parents will be falsely accused of abuse or neglect.

Let us look first at how Health Visitors and schools carry out their duties in this respect. After the birth of baby, Health Visitors come round to see if they can offer help and advice. While they are in the home, they cast an eye round for any warning signs. These can be vague, perhaps there are dirty and unkempt children around, the home might be so filthy that it is a health hazard, the mother might present as an alcoholic or drug user or bruises and contusions might be noticed on a child. In such a case, she will report her concerns to a superior and the result might be extra attention to that family. Precisely the same thing happens at schools. Last year there was a good example of this when a teacher spotted a bite mark on a child's arm and reported it to social services. The mother was subsequently arrested. This sort of informal surveillance is, if you like, a first layer of protection for children.

The above protection is sometimes lacking for children educated at home. In other words, it might be possible for a child to be filthy and unkempt and this fact will not be observed by a professional. A home educating mother could bite her child's arm and then make sure that nobody saw her son's bare arm until the injury had faded. This is not possible when a child is at school. The worry is that a small number of children could be at risk in this way. This is not really a screening programme as such, more an attempt to extend the protection enjoyed by schooled children to those who are taught at home.

One thing we are able to state confidently about this scheme is that some children who are at risk will not be spotted and that other children who are not at risk will be labelled incorrectly to be in danger of harm or neglect. This is inevitable. No system will save every child, just as none will avoid false accusations against some innocent parents. This has happened in the past, is happening now and will happen in the future. Thus, we try to balance these two points. On the one hand we hope that no child at risk of harm will escape notice and on the other, we hope that innocent parents shall not be wrongly accused. So far, I do not think I have said anything at all controversial; I think that we all agree on the nature of the problem.

The government's evident intention is that officers from the local authority shall visit home educators every year or so and cast a benevolent eye over their children. The object of this exercise will of course be to offer help and support to those who appear to need it. Sometimes this might be done by a CAF; perhaps social services will become involved. The sole and direct purpose of this activity is to protect children and help their parents. It is really not part of a plot to force home educated children back into school!

What harm might result from a false positive? Most probably, none at all. The worst case scenario might entail somebody from social services visiting the home as a result of some observation reported by an EWO. This is no disaster. In the first place, most such visits fizzle out and end up with a report stating that there is nothing to worry about. Sometimes, parents are glad of the chance to talk and the social worker is able to make referrals and arrange other services for the family. Unless there is genuinely something wrong, then matters are usually resolved amicably. I am of course aware that for many middle class parents, the prospect of a social worker turning up at their house is the ultimate nightmare and inevitable precursor to the children being taken into care. Many parents though, actually welcome social services involvement as a way to gain access to other services. Sometimes, the very fact that social services are hovering around can in itself be protection for a vulnerable child. It makes the parents think hard about their lifestyle and how they are behaving.

When we set the possibility that a child might end up being neglected, abused or murdered against the possibility that a certain number of people will be inconvenienced and very possibly subjected to annoying and intrusive questions, then we have a very difficult balancing act to perform. In a sense, we will never get it completely right because as I said earlier, some children will always fall through the net, while others will be incorrectly diagnosed as being at risk. It is not a perfect world.

I do not personally view the recommendations contained in the Badman Report as being a blueprint for an exercise in mass screening. Perhaps this is mere semantics. If it is mass screening, then it looks to me as though it will be a very mild and fairly low key operation, unlikely to cause much harm, but with the potential to do a lot of good. We should be welcoming this move, not sounding the alarm bells.


  1. Thank you Simon. A coherent and sensible appraisal with which I wholeheartedly agree. As you say, no system will save every child but better checks will mean that fewer children are harmed or neglected. I have a feeling that some of my fellow readers will not agree with your summation that it "is not part of a plot to force home educated children back into school!" After all, the whole Badman report is subject to conspiracy theories isn't it? Best wishes, Mary

  2. Can I ask what the rules for passing moderation are? A friend asked a civil question but it has not passed moderation.

  3. Sharon, I'm sorry. I have started moderting only to deter one particular person. I am sorry if your friends question was rejected by accident. It will take me a time to get used to the system. what was the question? Sorry about this, but I have had enough of one individual raving on here and hope that after a while I can stop moderating. Sorry again if I have deleted your friend's quesation, it was not intentional!

  4. Thanks Simon, they asked:

    Did you have a home visit from a health visitor? Was it compulsory?

  5. Ah Sharon, that's by way of being a trick question I fancy! The answer is, as I am sure you and your friend already know, no. Truth to tell, I dodged the Health Visitor like a leper, making sure that I was always out with the baby when she called. Reprehensible, I know. And you are about to expose, no doubt, the hideous double standards of a man who calls for every family in the land to be inspected by Health Visitors and EWOs and then evades them himself. My defence is of course that I knew perfectly well that my own baby was not at hazard, but then I dare say that many others will feel the same way! It is a tricky problem.

    I am sorry about the moderation. It will not be used to stop people who disagree with me, as I'm sure you know. I happy for anybody to debate with me. I draw the line when somebody calls me a dog, as Mr. Williams of Alton did the other day. This is the only reason that I have taken this action and I hope it won't be for long.

  6. If "mass screening for child abuse" really did always protect children,then it might be acceptable - but since being in school with "outsiders" 7 hours a day doesn't actually do that, I am not sure how a vist for an hour even once or twice a year will achieve anything in most cases - will prove the child is still alive, but not sure what else.
    We know a family whose lives are pretty miserable- physical and mental abuse; social services have called once to investigate a non accidental injury, but the children lied and no
    action was taken. Yet the children go to school....but they wouldn't tell (I ended up being the appropriate adult for the police interview). Yesterday one of our family witnessed another incident...I am sure all right-minded people would be horrified, but although I know that we will have to take action this time (it wasn't us last time) .. the child will deny it and the social services will put it down to over zealous discipline. Why does the child lie? - a misplaced sense of loyalty, living in an atmosphere where social services are depicted as the enemy to be thwarted, fear that she will be split from the siblings (that was the first question asked last time) and so on. These children are seen by trained adults for hours each day - but still there is considered insufficient evidence to act- how will a transitory visit from a relative stranger do any better...which is what we are being offered/compelled to accept!

  7. The difficulty here Julie is that we have no way of determining what the situation would be if we scrapped the Health Visitors and din't make children go to school. You have cited cases where concerns have not been acted upon because the children will not co-operate. This happens. I have mentioned one case where there was a good outcome; the child in Gloucester whose mother bit him and was spotted by the school. I think that enough bad things are picked up by schools and Health Visitors to make them an important part of child protection. Obviously, this is far from being an infalliable system. Just because a system is not infalliable does not mean that it is no use at all. My belief is that fallible and imperfect as the current system is, it is better than nothing. I would like to see the protection it offers extended to children who are not at school. I cannot see anything against this, always of course bearing in mind that this arrangement too would miss some children at risk of harm.

  8. "this arrangement too would miss some children at risk of harm."

    but I think that it would probably miss nearly all children who are at risk of harm; because if it is as difficult to detect abuse in a much larger school population who already have developed long term relationships with their teachers, how good will it be in detecting abuse when the only contact is fairly minimal and with a virtual stranger?

    My own preference is that what we need is much better relationships with the LAs in the first place so that more home educators have contact on a voluntary basis. This hopefully will improve educational provision and may also allow the slight chance of abuse coming to light anyway. Parallel with that is the need for the home ed community to be both more supportive and willing to act if they detect real abuse. The whole 'them and us' attitude is responsible for half the problems in the first place!

    Tomorrow we have the local LA boss coming to a meeting of local home educators, and next week I am due to look at some lab facilities that he has offered to us. Hopefully we can build on these positives, and train the LA better to weed out the negatives. I will write you a blog piece when I get a minute next week!

    Interestingly we were given a copy of Southampton Council (it is a neighbouring unitary authority) response to the consulation today. It is very positive and says that many of the recommendations will damage the good relationships without offering any benefit. I can't copy and paste any bits but it says that
    a)" this review and its recommendations will strike at the heart of relationships between family and children and could damage the relationship between LAS and home educators"
    b) registration should be mandatory as far as the LA is concerned, but there should be no legal obligation for home edders to comply and no punishment for not doing so
    c) registration should only be refused where there is a care type order ie real issues
    d) a demand to enter the home could be seen as an infringements of civil liberties

    and so on. Now this LA knows nearly all its home educators because it was a place where health and education records were linked in a pre Contact point trial - so the only possible unknowns are families who move into the area. They therefore have a good knowledge of who is involved and good relationships, without the usual paranoia of "they are out to get me". It will be interesting to see if either LAs can develop such relationships.

  9. Julie, I know a family like this too; the family of my daughter's best friend at primary school. Single mother with chronic depression, house a horrendous mess and full of neglected pets, known to social services, mother (already in poverty) fined because of older siblings' truanting. Nine-year-old punished almost every day at school for being late, started self-harming because she was so angry with herself for not being able to get there on time to protect her mother from yet more grief from EWS and SS. Did anyone at school notice that she was self-harming? No. I did. And I told the headteacher and got her some counselling. Interestingly, after that the school's attitude to the child changed dramatically, and they stopped punishing her and began encouraging her.
    I noticed because as a member of a home-educating community which included some very disadvantaged kids, I and my friends were used to looking out for them and intervening if necessary, as a friend, both to the kids and to their parents.
    Which children were better protected?

  10. You know Julie, you talk about the "Home Ed community", but I am far from convinced that such a thing exists. It is true that there are many groups and that thousands of families belong to these groups. I have a suspicion that the type of parent who attends such groups regularly is less likely to be an abuser than families who keep themselves to themselves and don't have more to do with other people than they can help. Such home educating families do exist, I have come across a few. I have to say that the ones I have met certainly did not make me suspect that they were abusing their children. One was a Christian family who were afraid of their children being contaminated by the world. Another were really weird people who never saw anybody. I visited a couple of times without meeting their daughter, who his upstairs. I think that sometimes if we know a lot of fairly sociable types at Home Ed groups, there is a tendency to say to ourselves, "Why what nonsense to suggest that home educated children are hidden. Just look at all these children on a picnic/visit to the museum/days at the farm." This shows that some home educated children are high profile, but there are many others who are not. I think that it is these families who cause concern sometimes.

    My own concern is less with abuse, which I strongly suspect to be as rare among home educating families as it is among the schooled, and more with the fact that some children may be receiving an inadequate education. I think that this is liable to be a much more widespread problem.

  11. Simon said, 'A home educating mother could bite her child's arm and then make sure that nobody saw her son's bare arm until the injury had faded. This is not possible when a child is at school.'

    Simon, of course it is. Long shirts, threats to the child about what would happen if anyone saw it, and if PE is scheduled while the mark is still visible, she'd just keep the child off school.

    My experiences both as a Head of Special Needs in a large London comprehensive, and as an abused child myself, lead me to believe that the risk of false positives among HE'ers is far too high to justify the faint possibility that an HE'd child might disclose to a total stranger who visited once a year.

    BTW, the role of the HV has changed TOTALLY in the last few years. It's no longer a matter of casting a benevolent eye over the household. Now it's all about 'ensuring' the aims of the govt are carried out.

    HV's are leaving the profession in droves. One friend said, 'I didn't take this job on so that I could be a social worker.' She felt that, instead of promoting the relationship between parent and child as being the cornerstone of a healthy family, HV's were being told to insert themselves between parent and child. She told me many of her colleagues (most of whom came from midwifery backgrounds) are leaving the job as a result.

    Mrs Anon

  12. How does health visitor child abuse recognition training compare to the training given to teachers?

  13. Health Visitors are, as Mrs. Anon remarked, increasingly acting as social workers. They receive training along the same lines in order to spot potential abuse. With school teachers, it is more a matter of common sense. The case of Khyra Ishaq in Birmingham is a good example of this. (Although not a particularly good example, of course, of social services handling the case well once they were involved.) Teachers had noticed that one of Angela Gordon's children was losing so much weight that he had to hold his trousers up with one hand. It was also noticed that the children seemed very hungry and that their mother seemed a bit mad. When she anounced that she was taking them out of school, the school contacted social services, who decided to take no further action. The point here is that the sort of things that the school picked up on, a child grabbing all the food he could and hoarding it, did not need special training, anybody could see that something was wrong.

  14. There's no reason to think Khyra would still be alive under the Badman recommendations. An EWO attempted to visit soon after she left school but they were out. People with little training (like LA inspectors, most of whom are ex-teachers) are unlikely to spot anything but gross abuse and this is likely to be reported by others in the community.

  15. The whole system needs a good shake up and the Badman recommendations are a move in the right direction. As I said, it was the teachers who raised the alarm in the case of Khyra Ishaq and it is a tragedy that their concerns were not acted upon. This terrible case is an argment for more care to paid to the possible hidden abuse of vulnerable children, not less.

  16. Yes, but it is and it should be, social services who need to the shake up - in all the recent cases of abuse that hit the press ( mostly nothing to do with HE in the slightest) - the families were known to ss, but didn't act!

  17. Agree completely. All too often social services are handed the ball and then muff it.

  18. Exactly, Julie. It's what happens when abuse is suspected or disclosed where the failures occur.

    I actually think that HE is one of society's success stories, in relation to child safety and wellness.

    Mrs Anon