Accusations – Foster Carers Can Be on the Receiving End of One, But Do We Really Understand Why?

Here we discuss what an accusation actually is. We also discuss what the different types of accusations can be, and what the process can be of dealing with those accusations. Being the alleged party in an accusation situation can be difficult, uncomfortable, and can often feel like you are judged guilty until proven innocent, or judged guilty and you are never able to clear your name or reputation.

Few subjects generate as much fear and frustration as accusations in social care – be it fostering, adoption or children’s wider social care. Currently with the high profile of historical sexual abuse, and the processing of sometimes decades-old disclosures through painful and torturous abuse investigations, the subject of accusations is raw, hotly debated and not far from anyone’s water cooler moments, or from the front pages of every tabloid or broadsheet. The never ending parade of TV stars who are accused of having caused harm to many over a number of decades, sometimes over 50 years ago, seems a constant nowadays. The horror of recent high profile convictions for sexual abuse and the sheer number of investigations have raised the profile of abuse accusations.

What many people fear, and it is a deep-rooted, but well-proven fear, is… what happens if the person on the receiving end of that accusation is you, or your partner, or grown up son or daughter, or your work colleague? How would we deal with it? How would we respond? What would happen if we are confronted with convincing evidence that our partner or loved one is accused of child abuse? Would we be able to keep information confidential? How would we respond to family and friends? How would we deal with the communities we live and work in? All these questions are palpable fears when considering the issue of accusations. For as we all know, many people think, and society at large may think… there is no smoke without fire.

Fears of accusations are well founded in the teaching sector. Since 2003 and the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act it has been against the law for an adult in a position of trust, such as teachers, to have sexual activity with an young person they are responsible for up to the age of 18. The age of consent for sexual activity is 16.

Firstly, and from the point of view of balance, we consider a case study of a young person’s experience.

The girl, says her teacher began to offer her one-to-one lessons when she was 14. The girl had developed an infatuation for her teacher, and was emotionally very drawn to him.

It seemed quite obvious to her that her teacher had noticed, he hugged her affectionately in a classroom and they swapped phone numbers and messenger details: “Very quickly it progressed from a kiss to him starting to want more.”

Very soon, the girl reports that the teacher’s intentions quickly changed from friendship to flirtatious and rapidly onto physical advances.

She says her teacher forced her into sex by telling her it was how adults proved they loved each other. I tried to tell him that I was not ready for sex that I did not want to do it, but he ignored me.

It was only when the girl became an adult that she found the confidence to do something about her experience.

Whilst no one would argue that anyone who targets and harms a vulnerable young person, the perpetrator should face the full force and consequences of the courts. But teaching unions and the wider teaching community say they also have serious concerns about the impact of false accusations. A teacher may be suspended, rumours will start, and once a suspension occurs it will never be erased from a teaching record, even when the allegation is proven malicious or false. Suspension is meant to be a neutral act, but that is not how it is necessarily perceived by other staff at the school, or indeed by the students or their parents. There are cases where teachers have been suspended, when a quick investigation would have probably found that the teacher was not in school on the day of the alleged abuse – but instead, a long, drawn-out, invasive process of investigation ensues involving the LADO and suspension.

Whilst every allegation must be investigated and action taken where there is found to be a case to answer, it is seems entirely wrong and irresponsible to treat easily resolvable accusations in the same way as more serious, complex and sexually abusive accusations, does it not?

What are the types of accusations someone can be on the receiving end of?

The first section is aimed at defining what exactly each one of these is:

A Complaint is anything a child complains about. A complaint can be a good thing, or can lead to good things. We want to hear children’s complaints or concerns. A child making a complaint can be the starting point to a serious concern being raised or an allegation being made.

A Serious concern is when something seriously concerning has come to the attention of an employer, and which needs to be investigated, or formally addressed and resolved. It usually relates to standards of professional conduct or care being unacceptable, the management of a child’s needs not meeting expectation or the core agreement or contract having been broken. It could involve the foster carers deviating from the care plan, or a social worker passing third party information to a client in a compromising way. A serious concern may also be the starting point to an allegation being made. Serious concerns have to be dealt with formally.

An Allegation is when a child actually alleges that they are being harmed, or are at risk of harm from a carer or professional, or have been harmed or put at risk of harm. People often confuse a serious concern and an allegation, when actually they are two separate and distinct things. An allegation must be investigated by the local authority, and statutory processes must be followed. The alleged perpetrator may not know of the nature of an allegation for legal reasons, and allegations may never be fully resolved.

Now let us consider the perspective through a case study a foster carer, wrongly accused of having harmed a child. This is a case study example.

Out of the blue, the carer received a phone call from the Child’s Social Worker.

A very blunt voice on the end of the phone simply explained that the child placed was not returning that day, and that other plans were being made. There was a cold tone in the worker’s voice, but no other information was forth-coming.

The foster carer wanted more information, but was given no more.

The carer’s panic and upset began immediately. The carer describes a sinking feeling, and a darkness. All sorts of questions went through the carer’s my mind, and he played out every possible scenario of what could have happened, and what could have been said, perceived or misperceived. The carers knew they hadn’t done nothing wrong. They had always felt we could make a real difference to children, and as a couple they had got through every challenge. But that was of no consolation now.

There were no phone calls returned. Even the child’s school clammed up on them, and had had such a good relationship with them up until that point. They felt so alone and unsupported. Like icebergs floating in the ocean – where was the help for the carers? The supervising social worker who had been very professional and with whom they had a very up front and good relationship with, shut down on them. Where did they go now?

The carers were just waiting to be arrested by the Police and taken to the Station for an interview room interrogation. To them it felt so unfair and so disempowering.

The experience has really affected the carer’s feelings of self-esteem, and the male care always believed feeling physically sick was just a figure of speech. For a few days they walked around like zombies – our worlds stopped.

The Supervising Social Worker said over the phone one day: “the next step is for the Police to decide what they are doing, if they are going ahead with an investigation”. Nobody is ready for how that feels and how out of control it can feel.

Carers in that situation can find themselves acting like children saying “It’s not fair.” “What have we done?” Ironic in an allegation situation, that carers actually feel more child-like than anything else.

To many carers it can feel nothing like a fair process. It’s not about the needs of the child or the protection and well-being of vulnerable children. It’s about procedure and the prevention of legal penalties if procedures are not followed correctly. It’s about the mess left from earlier mistakes in high profile cases.

It can feel as if secret meetings are taking place to discuss guilt or unsuitability behind carers’ backs – and at no point would carers be considered part of this, only like little dogs getting the crumbs of the table. Many carers later find out that their fostering record would always show an unfounded accusation for anyone to read, and this can never be erased, changed or altered despite how unfair it is.

Continuing in fostering at this point seems too many in an allegation situation beyond the pale. Taking another foster child or continuing as Foster Carers may seem ludicrous. What if bruises are found on a child? What if the birth family make an allegation, the child lies or another professional takes a dislike the carers? Everything at this point can feel so overwhelming, and so daunting.

Once an allegation investigation begins, the full weight of the legal process and secrecy can feel like it is stacked against the carer.

It seems to suggest the needs, health and well-being of the Child are unimportant when Social Workers are responsible but they leap into action if there’s a Foster Carer subject to an allegation.

Like many carers, the foster carer in this case study experienced so many mistakes, and bad practice by Social Services. Many carers feel so many foster carers are badly treated by draconian procedures drawn up by Government and interpreted by Local Authority Children’s Services and individual Social Workers.

The case study account is a harrowing one. It is an individual case study perspective and experience on an allegation investigation. The fact of the allegation will remain on a carer’s file, and the experience will never be erased. Some carers feel that they can no longer continue with their fostering agency and choose to transfer to another independent fostering agency. Whilst everyone acknowledges that there is a continuing risk of allegations from children, cares can also perceive they are more equipped because they are part of stronger community of foster carers, and stronger professional support.

So what does the case study story tell us? Well to a certain extent, there is no escaping the inevitable vulnerable nature of fostering, with increased vulnerability die to the child living in your home with your family, and it being a 24 hours a day job. That child is always there, and their vulnerabilities are always manifesting. Maybe slowly over time you notice some improvements in the child, but all too often it can feel you feel like you have the raw end of the deal.

Working with allegations risk is one of the toughest challenges foster carers, adopters and professionals working with children and young people face. To a certain extent, there is no easy cure. There is no magic wand, and there is no fast track to allegation resolution. But maybe it is high time we asked the questions like – do we have our responses right? Do we have the correct procedures that achieve the best outcomes for all parties concerned, and crucially, justice and fairness for all?