A Case Study of a UK Family Wrongly Accused of Child Abuse

Jon Prosser

ABSTRACT: This case study of a UK family wrongly accused of child abuse explores the process factors involved in the investigation along with the consequences for the accused and their family. Three aspects of the process are identified as significant: (1) the imbalance of power within the investigating agencies; (2) the abandonment of professional codes of conduct and practice by some investigators when they believe child sexual abuse has taken place; and (3) the failure of the system to acknowledge or compensate the wrongly accused family for the trauma and losses they suffer as a result of the accusation and investigation.

The work of the child protection agencies in the UK has undergone major changes in the last decade. Subsequent to the Jasmine Beckford (1985) and Kimberley Carlisle (1987) cases, social workers were urged to act more forcefully to protect children. However, following the Cleveland inquiry (Butler-Sloss, 1988), social workers and medical practitioners were castigated by the media for being overzealous. It is interesting to note that Luza and Ortiz (1991) suggest that the pendulum between emphasis on privacy of the family and invasive behavior by investigating agencies is also problematic in America.

Clearly, those who are charged with protecting children are in a difficult position. The central concern of society at large, and to which those involved in child abuse investigation need to be sensitive, is the necessity to protect children without being overly intrusive or damaging innocent families against whom accusations are made. The UK Children Act (1989) recognizes this dilemma and its guidelines attempt to act as a counterbalance between the roles of child protection agencies and families by emphasizing notions of "empowerment" and "involvement" during investigations into child abuse. In America, laws which make it a legal requirement for a wide variety of professionals to report suspected child abuse may have exacerbated the situation. It is clear that the problem of false accusations remains endemic to both countries.

This article considers what happens when an investigation does go wrong by considering particular process factors and, perhaps more importantly, the consequences for the accused and their family. These issues will be illustrated by reporting the reality for one UK family of the child protection agencies' attempts to balance the need to protect children yet not damage the accused family. It reflects their experience of being investigated by social workers, police, and the medical profession. Three aspects are identified as significant: (1) the imbalance of power within the investigating agencies; (2) the abandonment of professional codes of conduct and practice by some investigators when they believe child sexual abuse has taken place; and (3) the failure of the system to adequately acknowledge or compensate the wrongly accused family for the trauma and losses they suffer.

The single case study is drawn from a sample considered by Prosser and Lewis (1992) who, between 1989 and 1991, considered 30 cases of families in the UK who claimed to have been wrongly accused of child abuse. The central aim of the study was to identify families' perceptions (children, mothers, fathers, and grandparents) of the process of child abuse investigation. The data for this study were collected by unstructured and semi-structured interviews, observation, and analysis of documentary evidence including evidence presented at court. Clearly, as will be seen, the reported case went badly wrong to such an extent that it can only be representative of poor rather than everyday investigative practice. However, the case is "data rich" (Patton, 1990) and reflects what can happen when investigations go wrong and it manifests features which are characteristic of poor investigative procedures.

Families who are wrongly accused of child abuse experience, to varying degrees, trauma. But because research is often reported objectively and only small segments of data in the form of supporting evidence are used, socio-emotional features may not be reported or fully communicated. Here, the "story" is told by the accused parent, Mr. Fisher (the identity of the family has been changed). It is essentially through his perception and the meanings he gives to the investigative practice that we gain an insight into the trauma resulting from being wrongfully accused of child abuse. It is prudent to consider that in order for investigators of child abuse to achieve a balance between protecting children and damaging families, they need to be aware of the meaning of trauma for abused children and families wrongly accused.

The Case

The Fisher family has a pleasant home, with an extensive garden, situated in a small village close to a large city in the north of England. Prior to the investigation the Fishers say they were an "ordinary" upper working-class family. Mr. Fisher was accused of sexually abusing his daughter and the events that followed changed his life and lives of other members of his family. The case began in 1986 and was "officially" concluded in 1991, although the repercussions that followed suggest that a "conclusion" is an inappropriate term. Mr. Fisher's statements are drawn from his contemporaneous diary, a report written by him as the case neared completion, and semi-structured interviews. He begins:

I am the father of five children, two boys and three girls. At the time of which I write, my children's ages ranged from six months (Andrew, my youngest son) to Peter (my eldest son), who was 9. My daughters Joan, Paula, and Mary were aged 8, 4, and 2 respectively. My middle daughter, Paula, is the one all the following happened to.

In May of 1985 my wife and I were on a shopping trip, leaving my late mother in charge of our four children. My wife was pregnant at the time with our son Andrew, who was due to be born the next month. It was an exciting and happy time for my family, not only was a happy event due soon, but we were going to move into a new and bigger home. In any event when we returned from our shopping trip my mother told us, "Paula had a fall and was sore underneath." My wife checked Paula, and told me that her genital area was sore and bruised. The children had been playing "trains" with upturned kitchen chairs. In the general horseplay she had fallen, wide-legged, and caught herself underneath. My sister, who is a G.P. [doctor], called to collect my mother. She advised us that a warm salt bath would ease the pain. After a few days all signs of injury was gone.

In September of '85 Paula started school. My wife noticed small bruises in the genital area. Paula was questioned by us. "Had she hurt herself? Did someone hurt her?" She denied any knowledge of being injured nor could she give any explanation for her injuries. We determined to keep a wary eye on her. Christmas came and went. It was a new year: 1986. Paula was five on January 28th. On the last Sunday of that month Paula had been sent upstairs to get a bath. Her brother Peter (whose bedroom is adjacent to the bathroom) was lying on his bed. Paula, who has always had a tomboy streak, seized her opportunity for devilment. She flung herself at Peter like a miniature female Rambo. Peter drew up his knees in an act of self-protection and Paula landed on them. She screamed in pain. My wife was downstairs preparing an after bath supper was naturally alarmed and ran upstairs to see what had occurred. I was in the living room, my wife was horrified to see blood pouring from between our daughter's legs and a large bruise literally appearing before her eyes in a matter of minutes. The afflicted area was gently bathed. Weeping, Paula told us what had happened to her. My wife rushed her to Hilton Hospital and into our nightmare.

In Casualty my wife told them what had happened. A police surgeon (who would not identify himself) was called. Question after question was aimed at my distraught wife. She mentioned the incident the previous May. She mentioned asking Paula about her lesions in September. Paula was detained. The following day a social worker (the first of many) appeared.

Mr. and Mrs. Fisher claim that four social workers were involved in their case at various times. Prosser and Lewis (1992) report that in their sample of 30 cases three key social workers per case were the norm. The rapid turnover in this case confused the family in a number of ways, for example, in the style of investigation and the manner in which they were investigated, as Mrs. Fisher explains:

The first one seemed to believe us and did a lot for us . . . another one liked dropping bombshells and hurting us . . . she was always looking on things badly, looking for symbols . . . she saw our youngest boy with a drum kit and saw the drum stick as a phallic symbol.

Investigators who behave eccentrically or interpret policies in an idiosyncratic way are also reported by Luza and Ortiz (1991), referring to the work of Rodwell and Poertner. The rapid turnover of social workers (assuming that three social workers per case is considered to be "rapid") may have undermined the Fishers' confidence in the child protection system. Poor record keeping further undermined the Fisher family's confidence, since each social worker who became involved in their case asked them to repeat the stories, indicating to the Fishers that a complete record of their case did not exist.

Alternatively, social workers may, as a matter of thoroughness, have been engaged in comprehensively reviewing the evidence, but this was not explained to the family. However, evidence from the Prosser and Lewis (1992) study suggests that poor recording of data was a problem. They found that in 23 of 30 cases (77%), parents perceived social workers as being unsystematic in the way they recorded data and, on the basis of the number of factual mistakes in reports submitted to courts by social workers, there was substance to their concerns. This suggests that a systematic form of recording data (other than formal interviews) may not be part of the professional code of practice or working culture of social workers in the UK.

The circumstances which appear to initiate an investigation into possible child abuse are varied but Prosser and Lewis (1992) report that, like the Fishers, taking children to doctors or hospitals out of concern for their health is one significant trigger. They reported that in 9 of 30 cases (30%), families claim that their cases became problematic following the involvement of medical practitioners. The many injuries (in three separate incidents) Paula received alerted the hospital to the possibility of child abuse, yet, according to the Fishers, the hospital staff suppressed any notion of alternative interpretation of her condition. The nature of the injuries made it especially difficult for the investigators to maintain impartiality. Mr. and Mrs. Fisher were aware of the conclusions hospital staff may have drawn from Paula's injuries, but said they continued to take their daughter out of their concern for her illness. Mr. Fisher continues:

Of course we were not believed, in fact it was made painfully obvious that they thought that I had molested my daughter. And that if we were very lucky we could remain as a complete family. The main force of these sordid remarks came from Dr. Newton, more of him later, whose reputation as a holder of "case conferences" is legendary in Hilton Hospital. The remarks made by the social workers are, still after all this time, too painful even to write. I can't even speak of the filthy innuendoes made to both myself and my wife disguised as quote, "Our way to find the truth and help your daughter."

In the hospital, the parents were accused of sexual abuse and Mr. Fisher, against whom the accusation was mainly directed, lost his temper. He believed this action only compounded hospital staff beliefs, although he thought any action he took would have been interpreted as the act of a guilty person. Since to be accused of child abuse (whether guilty or not) is a disturbing experience for the family, is it possible for investigators to make sound judgments at this time? Is it possible that fathers displaying anger or losing their temper confirmed guilt in investigators' eyes, as would being cooperative and friendly? There is little research in this area, but La Fontaine (1990) reflects on the difficulty investigators face at these particular times:

It is true that guilty fathers often react with angry denial and may be supported in this way by their wives. It requires training and time to distinguish between denial of all responsibility which characterizes most sexual abusers and a genuine declaration of innocence (p. 219).

Whilst the ability to distinguish between the reactions of the guilty and of the innocent should be questioned (and I have to say the idea of "training" to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent concerns me) the "natural" reaction of investigators, according to Luza and Ortiz (1991) is less equivocal:

The Child Protection Service shames the falsely accused family even further for having objections to the allegations. These objections are treated by the CPS as even more proof of guilt (p. 111).

Mrs. Fisher said the hospital staff made their minds up quickly and became "cold." She claimed that whenever she visited the hospital she was "treated like dirt." Mrs. Fisher said she was questioned "aggressively" by Dr. Newton and a group of others and immediately broke down and felt "humiliated." Mr. Fisher goes on:

Paula was detained in Hilton Hospital for three weeks. The only treatment Dr. Newton gave her, apart from daily questioning and photographing underneath, was cream. Meanwhile the social workers visited us, visited Paula's school, her ex-headmaster, and everyone they could think of to try to apportion blame on us and me in particular.

Mr. Fisher believed he was in a no-win situation, that he was perceived as guilty from day one, that the onus was on him to prove his innocence, and that too much emphasis was placed on confirmatory evidence and too little weight given to refuting investigators' beliefs of guilt. These beliefs may be well-founded and are also reported in the work of Faust and Ziskin (1988). Mr. Fisher continues:

Dr. Newton, for his part, made sure that every nurse on the ward, every sick child in there was told of my alleged crime against my daughter. We had to run the gauntlet of disgusted people every time we visited our child.

If what Mr. Fisher is saying is true, the doctor behaved in an unprofessional manner. The seriousness of the crime could have been said to have removed any notion of confidentiality, privacy, and sensitivity. This suggests that an accusation of child sexual abuse takes on the mantle of a cultural taboo and is sufficiently powerful that normal professional codes of conduct and practice are put to one side.

Where we live, as you can see is a village, a small community. The social workers' visits to all and sundry and loud voiced remarks on their visits had not gone unnoticed. Angry shouts by passersby at night, and on one occasion a smashed window, were signs of local hostility to us. My son's (Peter) school work suffered, a normal out-going boy became a nervous wreck.

Three weeks later Paula was allowed home and social workers remained in our lives too. So did Dr. Newton, our chief tormentor, for Paula had to remain one of his outpatients. At no time did Newton discuss Paula, only to say he thought she had been abused. The stigma remained. A job I had been promised was refused because part of the work involved visiting homes where young children were living. A football fanatic, people who gave me a lift to the match never had room in their car. A hundred and one agonies of prejudice was heaped upon myself and my wife. But most agonizing was not knowing what was wrong with our daughter.

If he was innocent the above comments indicate the double edged sword for Mr. Fisher — he was experiencing the stigma associated with being accused of child abuse and the pain of not knowing the cause of his daughter's condition. The combination of these factors led to severe trauma for Mr. and Mrs. Fisher:

Easter 1986, the school holidays. Because of Dr. Newton's allegations our children had no friends and nowhere to play except in our own back garden. They were juvenile lepers without a disease. Joan, my eldest daughter, is mentally retarded. She was playing football with my other kids. Joan caught Paula a blow with a careless innocent kick. We witnessed the incident. I took Paula to Hilton Hospital. Dr. Newton, who was at home, was called in. He told me that Paula was under a care order and he said if I took her home the police would arrest me. He lied. I was foolish and to my everlasting shame left Paula in Hilton Hospital. Newton seized his chance and called one of his famous case conferences. Paula was put on a 28-day care order. The ordeal began again. Many more visits by social workers and a Guardian Ad Litem (legal representative for Paula). I was taken by police and questioned for hour after hour in the local police station. Not to put too fine a point on it you can imagine the police attitude to me. My wife was questioned interminably by the police. A psychologist was called in.

Parents in the Prosser and Lewis (1992) study were concerned that investigators (mainly social workers) passed on to doctors their opinions and only confirmatory "evidence" that abuse had taken place. The Fisher case reverses this scenario and suggests that the doctor was the prime mover against them and that it was he who passed on his belief that they were guilty of abuse to social workers and other professionals. The parents believed that the child psychologist in their case was initially against them since, according to the parents, a report from Dr. Newton was given to him stating that the hymen was broken and finger marks were found inside Paula.

Mrs. Fisher recounted a disturbing incident which took place during an interview between Paula and the psychologist. She claims that during questioning the psychologist asked Paula if her father had "poked" her, indicating approximately the vaginal area. Paula, Mrs. Fisher says, answered "yes," whereupon the psychologist went quickly to a case conference which was taking place at the same time in another room. After he had left, Mrs. Fisher, although prepared to believe her daughter ("my children come first"), asked Paula "where was I when it happened?" and she replied, "You were there."

Mrs. Fisher said she remembered the incident which took place when Mr. Fisher was holding the baby on the floor and Paula and Joan began fighting. Mr. Fisher, whilst trying to protect the baby, pushed Joan away with one hand and Paula with the end of his foot. The pushing with a toe was interpreted as a "poke" by Paula. Mrs. Fisher recalled the psychologist, who questioned Paula once more. The psychologist, according to Mrs. Fisher, said, "Oh God I'm sorry, I shouldn't have been so quick." They agreed that the child had interpreted the word "poke" not in the sexual abuse sense of intercourse or use of an object, but in a child's sense of being prodded with a finger (or a toe). Mrs. Fisher said the psychologist returned to the case conference, but found the meeting near its end and decisions had been taken.

Later, the parents say, the psychologist suggested the family seek a second medical opinion, since the child was still hemorrhaging in the hospital and he did not now believe sexual abuse had taken place. According to Mr. and Mrs. Fisher, the hemorrhaging, claimed the medical staff, was caused by Paula abusing herself since "she enjoyed the experience of abuse." Mr. Fisher continues:

Newton tried every way to ruin our family. For example, one day I visited Paula with Mary, my youngest girl. On our arrival Paula complained of bleeding, but no one would help her. I called a nurse, who called a doctor who refused to treat her because quote, "Dr. Newton wouldn't let anyone else." Dr. Newton turned up with Dr. Thomas, a police surgeon. They accused me of molesting Paula in the ward, in full view of at least 60 other people.

Mr. Fisher returned home and collapsed. A week later a similar occurrence took place except, according to the family, on that occasion Mrs. Fisher and her mother-in-law were the visitors. Mrs. Fisher went to Dr. Newton's office to seek an explanation for the second hemorrhaging in a short time and to defend her husband. According to Mrs. Fisher, Dr. Newton shouted at her to "get out" and pushed her out of the office.

A commonly held view of parents, according to the Prosser and Lewis (1992) study, was that medical practitioners were often unprofessional in their behavior to them. They perceived doctors as acting as though they were guilty, of adopting a dogmatic stance and, as in the Fisher case, were unhappy to the extent of being obstructive for families to seek a second opinion.

All of the children, with the exception of the 5-month-old baby, whom Mrs. Fisher refused to have examined, were inspected by the police surgeon and no evidence of abuse was found. Mr. Fisher continues:

All in all Paula was kept in Hilton Hospital on Newton's say. She was photographed, questioned, and given no treatment. She was kept a virtual prisoner. The 28 day care order remained. For 11 weeks our daughter was kept in. Our family was distraught. In July, 1986 Paula was allowed home provided that Newton could "watch her." My wife decided enough was enough, she had witnessed my pain and hid her own pain to keep her family together. We visited our local G.P. [doctor] to get a second opinion. Because of Dr. Newton's influence it took us four visits to convince him. Finally Paula was admitted to a large women's hospital.

The Fishers believed the reluctance of their doctor to seek a second opinion was due to the influence of Dr. Newton and Dr. Thomas (the police surgeon) who were adamant that abuse had taken place. This again raises the question of professional codes of conduct and additionally raises the possibility that the status of the consultant (Dr. Newton) acted to stifle the actions of the family doctor and improperly distorted the balance of power within investigating agencies. Eventually, Paula was taken to a hospital in London.

Paula's "sexual abuse" was diagnosed as a skin disease. The doctor diagnosed it in five minutes, her vagina was intact, there was no sign of sexual molestation whatsoever. It took them literally ten minutes to confirm this. The second opinion found no evidence of abuse, no evidence of entry (again, since this conflicts dramatically with Dr. Newton's evidence that the hymen was broken, the question of professional codes of practice and ethics is raised). The hymen was intact and tight but Paula had a skin disease, which had spread to her back passage, and she needed to attend the hospital for treatment.

Dr. Newton disagreed with this diagnosis and, according to the Fishers, sent photographs to another London specialist who confirmed the photographs as typical of the skin disease identified by the second opinion. The medical condition was not a common one. However, the question to pose here is did the doctors seek an alternative explanation for Paula's condition with the same vigor they sought to establish the case was one of child abuse and Mr. Fisher was the abuser? Prosser and Lewis (1992) found, that in 3 of the 30 cases (10%) involving investigations into physical or sexual abuse, a "natural" condition was eventually diagnosed. The issue of accuracy of medical diagnosis is a complex one but clearly an area of concern is that a range of conditions imitate those which are indicative of child abuse (see Wakefield and Underwager, 1988, 1994). Mr. Fisher continues:

Dr. Newton and Dr. Thomas had for months accused and damned us. But this disease had never been mentioned. You would think that they would apologize, but no. For another five months Newton and Thomas continued their accusations. Finally in February, after going to court on a total of 15 occasions, their claim was thrown out. No apology. No sorrow. The "caring profession" who had criticized us for so long walked away that day in the court. Newton is still in Hilton Hospital.

Five months after the second opinion was given the case went to court and was quashed. The judge, say the Fishers, apologized (the same judge had given numerous interim care orders).

The family viewed the various investigating agencies in an interesting way. The Fishers do not feel any animosity towards the social services. They believed that, on the whole, the social services "fought for her [Paula] to come home" (Mrs. Fisher) but that they were under considerable pressure from the hospital staff to remove the child from them and have her adopted. Mr. Fisher said he was questioned for two hours by the police before being allowed access to a solicitor. He claimed he was threatened with physical violence by them: "You could easily fall down the stairs . . . it'll be easy to say you assaulted me . . .'' He believed their aggressive questioning was partly as a result of being told that medical evidence confirmed that sexual abuse had taken place, and that a confession was needed. According to Mr. Fisher, a chief superintendent of police later gave a verbal apology following a complaint made by him. In summing up the police role in the investigation Mr. Fisher said they were "heavy but fair" and that "they were only doing their job."

Clearly, the high status doctors, particularly consultants, hold in society assigns them substantial influence and power over others within their profession and investigating agencies. In Mr. and Mrs. Fishers' experience, Dr. Newton was seen as the "expert" who disadvantaged their case. Prosser and Lewis (1992) found evidence to confirm that this belief was held by others in similar situations. They established that in 23 of 30 cases (77%), the influence of an individual (either a doctor or a social worker) was seen by parents as pivotal and having a major influence on their case.

In 88% of those cases the individuals were viewed negatively by parents. The problem, parents in their sample claimed, stemmed from difficulties arising from individuals working for an investigating agency interpreting their role or their part in the child welfare process idiosyncratically, key people in social and medical services not following laid-down procedures and instead using their positions and power in a way that was detrimental to the child protection cause and families in general, and "experts" in certain fields deviating inappropriately from their area of expertise. The inappropriate influence of an individual or an "expert" on the investigative process is of considerable concern and requires further research.

Family Outcomes

The Fisher family were severely affected by their experiences, which were part of their lives for six years (one-third of their marriage). Mrs. Fisher said that she had loved her husband and their relationship was good but now little remained:

They stripped my husband. I'd always looked on my husband as a manly man who could protect me and they'd taken that away . . . a little weak soul was there . . .

They do not have a sexual side to their relationship now. Mrs. Fisher was the strongest family member, but the experience may have damaged her relationship with her husband and Paula. She is emotionally unwell and visits a psychiatrist regularly. Mr. Fisher, according to his wife, had a nervous breakdown. He feels he has lost everything — his job, his friends, his wife, and a daughter. The trauma suffered by the family may have contributed to the many physical and emotional problems the family have suffered. They say they were not offered any form of support at the end of the case and have not received the counseling they clearly need. These experiences mirror those identified by Wakefield and Underwager (1988) and Schultz (1989). Paula had a nervous breakdown and still requires medical help. According to Mrs. Fisher, Paula's personal habits are now "disgusting" and she feels, "They've taken my baby from me . . . she knows too much now. I felt as though she'd been sexually abused by the hospital."

The trauma experienced by the Fisher family equates to findings from other studies. All families, for example, in the Prosser and Lewis (1992) study, to varying degrees, reported a shift in group dynamics: In 2 of the 30 cases (7%) they believed the family unit was stronger as a result of experiences (also reported by Luza and Ortiz, 1991) but in 22 cases (73%) they believed their family was damaged in some way. Some parents found difficulty in relating to their children because (a) they (the parents) had an altered perception of their children caused by long periods of separation and their reactions to their children's experiences and (b) a change in their children's behavior due perhaps to their increased sexual knowledge or belief that their parents were guilty as a result of progressive and focused questioning.

All families described a new reserve and lack of trust in their lives. Fathers were distant from daughters and scared of any form of physical closeness lest it be misconstrued in some way, mothers avoided taking their children to the doctor or hospital because earlier visits had resulted in accusations of abuse, and children felt unable to confide in parents or be close to them because they felt parents had failed to protect them or they had been told of (or come to understand) the accusations made against their parents. In 17 of 30 cases (57%) in the Prosser and Lewis (1992) study, parents spoke of difficulties in marital relationships occurring usually between one and two years after the case, although it is impossible from the data to conclude that cases were a determining or influential factor.

Damage to Children

Paula says she hates doctors, suffers from severe depression, and wants much of the time to be in her bedroom by herself. In a field diary it was noted of Paula:

Before she came into the room I saw a photograph of her — she looked a happy, plumpish, red-cheeked five-year-old. The girl that walked through the door was thin, tense (to be expected), her eyes sunken and dark and her hair from the top of her head gone (I was told she pulls it out).

Paula, interviewed on her own, was an articulate child. She was angry and embarrassed about her experiences. Her anger was directed at the doctors who examined her, especially Dr. Newton who she said "took photographs of me thingy and when he'd finished he shoved me off." Paula had, she believes, about seven examinations, many of which were conducted in the presence of large groups of doctors and students. She was particularly unhappy, "embarrassed" by Dr. Newton's habit of bringing along many junior doctors (his "entourage" according to Mr. Fisher) to the examination. Paula explains:

They didn't treat me as a person, they treated me as a nothing . . . He [Dr. Newton] didn't care . . . never tried to comfort me or anything.

Paula feels let down by her mother; she feels her mother let it happen and abandoned her. She felt lonely during the experience, although she did talk to her teacher, which helped. She feels she is now more bad-tempered and does not trust people. Paula says she was not listened to by the investigators. Mrs. Fisher claims none of the children who witnessed one of the accidents was believed when questioned by social workers.

Mr. Fisher feels a little bitter towards Paula and there is "distance" between them. He recognizes the change in Paula:

The round face has gone, she's very sharp, no innocence . . . she's lost her sweetness . . . she's like a little old woman now.

The outcome of the Fisher case was a severely damaged family. As they attempted to resume a "normal" family existence, they encountered unexpected long-term trauma. Mr. and Mrs. Fisher sought an apology from Dr. Newton but received a standard "sorry you have been inconvenienced" letter from the hospital administration. They believed the effect of the accusation of child sexual abuse on them was severely underestimated. They were told by one investigator, "You're okay now, you can get on with your life." The true cost to many families wrongly accused of abuse is evidently more substantial. Underwager and Wakefield (1988) make it clear that:

False accusations of sexual abuse produce a cost to the child, the person accused, and the society. Children are victimized in a way that can be more damaging to them than actual sexual abuse. Accused persons are assaulted by the readiness of the society to assume guilt, by the social isolation and alienation, and by the prolonged effects of being under investigation and prosecution, including financial ruin and lost jobs, families, and marriages (p. 327).


This article has considered the perspective of one family who was wrongly accused of child abuse. The negative procedural factors which influenced the investigation were:

Perception of the accused as guilty from day one.

Investigators only seeking confirmatory evidence.

Poor recording of evidence.

Inappropriate interpretations by investigators of statements or actions.

Idiosyncratic behavior and interpretation of policies by investigators.

Investigators focusing on a single piece of evidence and ignoring contrasting sets of evidence.

Confusion over what constitutes a medical indicator of abuse and a "natural" condition.

High status doctors (a consultant) having substantial influence over other investigators.

Experts deviating from their areas of expertise.

None of these negative procedural factors are new. It is disappointing that many of the issues identified in the Fisher case have been reported elsewhere (see Wakefield and Underwager, 1988). This poses an important question. Is it possible that the central issue for those involved in researching child abuse investigation is not, "What do investigators of child abuse accusations actually do?" or, "What constitutes good investigative practice?" but, given that we have a body of knowledge of good practice, "Why are there a significant number of investigators not applying that knowledge in their everyday work?"

In the case of the Fisher family the prime contextual factor was a powerful doctor taking inappropriate decisions and actions. The doctor did not follow a professional code of practice when he implied that an accusation of child abuse was sufficient for proper conduct and behavior to be dispensed with. Also the notion of accountability is absent and appears not to be a factor in the case to anyone other than the Fisher family. Culpability and malpractice are, in UK law at least, difficult for the poor to extract from the powerful and the well protected.

A feature of this article has been the use of first order data to tell the story. The words of Mr. Fisher were used to portray something of the trauma of a family where the father was wrongly accused of child abuse. It is important that investigating agencies are aware that families wrongly accused of abuse may be damaged as a result of investigation and that the notion of "You are okay now, you can get on with your life" may not reflect an option open to them. Perhaps in order for investigators of child abuse to achieve a balance between protecting children and damaging families they need to be aware of the meaning of trauma for families wrongly accused of abuse. Perhaps investigators would reflect on their everyday practice if they were made aware of trauma experienced by families like the Fishers, particularly if the story is reported in the words of those wrongly accused. Finally, it remains a sad indictment of UK society that no support or therapy is available even to those severely traumatized by wrongful accusations and that there is only very limited redress or compensation for families like the Fishers.


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