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The culture of making allegations?

2009

Hello, Joe Gibb writing again from Scotland.
 
I'm interested in people's opinions on the culture that seems to have developed of young people making allegations of physical abuse against staff. This I must add is usually during a crisis which leads to physical intervention.
 
In Scotland there was a major enquiry into allegations of abuse at a residential school and secure unit called Kerelaw in  which came under scrutiny from the Care Commission and the Police. This investigation eventually led to charges being brought against a substantial number of staff. The eventual outcome of this was two members of staff served custodial sentences, One of two years and the other ten years (currently out on appeal)
 
Its not for me to comment on whether these people are guilty or innocent but one thing I will suggest is that since the Kerelaw scandal there seems to have been a massive over reaction from senior managers.  It has now got to the stage that should you have to restrain a young person you fully expect to be suspended (precautionary of course) until an investigation can be concluded.
 
It would seem that a direct result of this has been that young people realise that all they have to do is make an allegation of assault and the worker who has often been challenging behaviour which will result in the worker being out of their lives for a while (at least) This tactic quickly becomes a bit of a game where I have seen three or four colleagues being on suspension at one time. These cases have then has been investigated where the complaints been unfounded where the worker has returned to work with their careers and reputations intact (but their state of mind damaged)
 
The process of suspension in Scotland is a long one, (usually between twelve to sixteen weeks) and I'm sure we can all imagine what this process does to the often innocent workers and their families. I'm not for one minute suggesting we should compromise the safety of the young people we work with as I'm fully versed in the Children (Scotland) ACT 1995 where it clearly states that the child's safety is paramount.
 
What I would be interested to know is "Has anyone came across similar issues where a culture of making allegations has begun and how can we prevent this? I would just like to make it clear here that I'm not  an advocate of any sort of abusive practice but this culture needs to stop.
 
What I do know is that a similar problem happened within the English prison system where inmates where making complaints of "heavy handedness by officers". A similar problem was encountered by the Police service of Northern Ireland. In both cases the solution was found by using hand held Camcorders (Would this be a step too far?) This tactic reduced the amount of allegations quite significantly. Again I'm not suggesting for one minute that the youth care sector has any connection to Prisons or the Police service of Northern Ireland, however they did have a similar problem where staff were constantly being placed under suspension!
 
I would be interested in people's responses to this controversial part of our work and whether there are similar problems in other parts of the world?
 
With respect,
 
Joe Gibb
...

Hi Joe,
 
Our staff has also raised concerns about allegations of abuse by children, or even open threats made by children, e.g. "if you touch me, I will lay a charge of abuse against you".
 
For me as manager it is therefore extremely important that physical interventions must take place only in a team context so that the staff involved can feel supported in their actions.  This may be difficult where staff shortages don't always make this possible, but I believe it is the organisation's responsibility to place at the worker's disposal all the resources needed for the safe execution of his duties, and if this means additional staff, then so be it.  When an organisation cannot do this, it has to carry some of the responsibility when "things go wrong".

Unfortunately most organisations hide behind their policies and working procedures when something goes wrong and quickly acts to distance themselves from the event, rather than adopting an approach of looking both at the people and the systems involved in creating the crisis or incident.
 
Where children or youth however make accusations of abuse against a staff member that is clearly shown to be fraudulent or false, I also believe that such an action should carry consequences appropriate to the young person's age and level of understanding.  It is the same as making a false statement under oath (as far as I'm concerned).  Where we have found that children or youth have a tendency to make false allegations, we also explain to them that they are damaging their own integrity, and if in future they report something, they should expect that the matter will be treated with suspision (that is not to say that we will not ever investigate it properly).  But, staff who are competent and dedicated should FEEL the support of the organisation, it cannot just be something written in a policy somewhere.
 
I have also made the arrangement with my staff that where a child or young person has threatened to accuse them of abuse, they report the incident immediately to a senior staff member, and that they actually immediately accompany that child to a senior staff member to make such a report.  Our response to the child is then "if you feel you need to report something, let me accompany you to someone so that you can report it without delay".  We feel this helps because it diffuses the threat, because the staff member has shown that they will not respond to a threat at all, and that they are not afraid for the child to report anything, because they have nothing to hide.
 
I also find that children tend to make threats when they don't understand the child protection policy, and so this needs to be a topic of open and ongoing discussion.  The more it is discussed and debated with them, the more the "we" aspect is emphasised - it is us against abuse, not staff against children.  So staff take the position of aligning themselves WITH the children against abuse.  This gains more commitment to the issue from staff, as well as the children.
 
We have also found that after we implemented a child protection policy staff were very hesitant to restrain where necessary, or interact physically with children because of the fear of allegations of abuse.  We had to emphasise the importance of physical touch (appropriate) and physical intervention when necessary.  We also had to re-evaluate our own systems and way of working - we should create safety not only for children, but staff as well.
 
Well, these are just some of our experiences on the topic...
 
Werner van der Westhuizen,
Port Elizabeth, South Africa
...
 
Hi Joe,

 I believe that you highlight clearly the inevitable collision between an ill thought out 'children's rights' agenda and a 'policing' approach to marginalised youth in most aspects of their daily lives. The history of structural oppression in our society towards working class communities has created a culture of us and them which is transmitted through the generations. Within these communities those in positions of power and authority (police, social work, teachers) are largely viewed with suspicion and sometimes hostility. The reasons are complex but at the heart of it I believe we are looking at the oppressive imposition of values from an elite onto groups who know they have been excluded from opportunity and stigmatised into the bargain. When these young people are faced by the often harsh and subjective decisions of those who police their lives they are left with few options regarding receiving a fair hearing. They aren't as articulate, educated or possessing of the social capital those in power have to open doors of opportunity. As a result they are left to either internalise their sense of hopelessness and harm themselves or kick out and harm others. However the messy interface between rights and control offers a wee chink for them to exploit in terms of addressing the power imbalance, that of making an allegation. 
 
This is a political act analogous to the restrictive work practices and sabotage deployed by those on the assembly lines of old. It is a an expression of resilience and offers some hope that the child has not been fully crushed by the system. The increase in surveillance will do nothing but widen the gap. I believe the solution revolves around emancipatory values that identify the struggle as one shared by staff and residents.
Collective decision making and group accountability that involves listening and acting on the grievances of both parties.
 
Look at models of mediation and conflict resolution many of which have been used to great effect in therapeutic communities down the years and actively ignored by the technocrats in the social services who create systems of regulation that aim to erase any expression of humanity in the work that we undertake.
 
Peace
Jeremy Millar
Scotland
...
 
Hi Joe
 
This is not an uncommon problem.  In fact, here in the States it is more common to report sexual abuse.  A few thoughts.
 
The biggest problem we face in our work is that not all of our colleagues are "innocent", and it is very difficult to distinguish between accurate attempts to get help for abusive staff behavior and manipulative behavior by clients who enjoy seeing staff being jacked around like they (clients) feel they have been.
 
Two major thoughts (or I would be here all day).
 
1. The good news about "allegations" is that it makes staff very careful and thoughtful about doing physical interventions, which I think is good.  If they are worried about themselves, they will be tempted to avoid such interventions whenever possible and become more creative in employing non-coercive strategies.  If physical intervention is always an option, it becomes too easy to resort to it even when other interventions would be effective.  For that reason, I like staff to become very hesitant about intervening physically.  When they do, it will be because they have really tried many other ways to keep youth safe and will be willing to risk their own comfort because they believe there was no other way the youth could have been prevented from harming themselves or someone else.
 
2.  Allegations, when not true, are a manipulative device often employed by young people who feel otherwise powerless and resort to this destructive use of power.  It is important to examine the therapeutic environment to be sure staff are not putting clients in situations where they frequently feel powerless - which is how they came to need us in the first place - and are giving them many "empowering" experiences so they don't need to resort to unhealthy ways to exert power.
 
Of course, we could go on and on (as I am known to do.....), but I'll stop for now.
 
Lorraine Fox
...
 
I study psychology and I am really enjoying the courses. I came across this site and I find it very interesting.
 
I think when there is an allegation, we should always take it very seriously. Not all may be true, but that's why it's very important to investigate every angle.
 
I used to be a child who lived in a group home, many years back. From my own experience, I have seen a lot of different types of abuse in the system.

We would like to believe that the children are very protected, and that is not always the case. In fact there are a lot of predators who have these children in their care, and it's very sad. I remember some staff in the
highest positions, would abuse children. I have witnessed sexually and mentally. I think when it comes to allegations it is very important to analyze everything thoroughly no matter how hostile the child may be, or how innocent the staff member may be. You may be surprised with the actual truths. I have noticed that it is very rare that a child makes an allegation about a staff member because there is always the fear of being in lock up or being treated badly by other staff members. In fact I think the other children would even single out that child. I have seen staff with very weak characters getting picked on. Kids would pick on weak staff member just for fun to amuse each other.

Anyhow as we know, anything is possible but it's very important never to close the door on anybody.

Natacha Bougie
...
 
You never mentioned if the suspension was with or without pay? If the company is paying too much $ for suspensions believe you me there will be something done about it. I would like to know if you are working alone or in pairs, or maybe groups.
 
My observation: If the false suspensions are happening often and you are out "with pay" for 12-16 weeks then maybe you should enjoy the vacation?
 
Power cannot be taken away; you must give it away. If you try to control someone you will always lose. If a staff and a client (resident) are disagreeing the staff will always win. It is up to the staff to make the travel easy. Staff have the power ... use it wisely.
 
Donna Wilson
...

The issue Joe raises regarding agency responses to allegations of abuse is, I believe, a critical one for residential care. I agree with most of the responses to his post to date but would add to these from my own familiarity with the particular context Joe refers to.
 
To keep it more general to start with, I think it is helpful to try and avoid the assumption that false allegations are necessarily malicious - they might be but at other times they can reflect a cry for help, a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of a situation, a kid's attempt to justify their own part in a situation they subsequently regret or they may just reflect the inevitable messiness and ambiguity of conflict situations in residential child care. Most such situations require dialogue and wise counsel to bring about resolution at an interpersonal level rather than a heavy-handed organisational response. Suspension as a first-line organisational response is a cop-out - there's a pressing need to nail the myth that suspension is neutral - it is an experience from which many workers never recover and which has an impact far beyond those directly caught up in it - it creates and spreads fear within an organisation.

And when children feel that staff are fearful and are not then the strong adults that they need them to be they themselves become unsure - paradoxically they feel less rather than more safe as a result of actions carried through under banners of child safety or child protection. In such situations they are more likely to get into conflict as they seek reassurance that staff are sufficiently strong to 'hold' their anxieties.
And if staff do not feel sufficiently confident or empowered to do so the result is likely to be more confusion, more restraint situations and more allegations - thus a culture of allegations emerges, false, true or very often likely somewhere in between.
 
Moving on to the specific Scottish context. It is about time that someone pointed out the dysfunctional consequences of inquiries. The conceit that these are commissioned to improve the lot of kids in care by those who have no understanding of residential child care, from those who have no understanding of residential child care (but somehow become 'experts' nevertheless) is insulting to those who have spent their lives at the messy end of child care trying to do just that. Well-done to Joe for exposing what really happens on the back of inquiries - and it's little to do with making life better or safer for kids.

I wish I could offer more positive support to Joe and others in like situations but I struggle to. You are faced with a whole child care establishment that is, institutionally, in the thrall of child protection and children's rights ideologues and a trade union that is similarly so and which fails to properly stand up for its members. The only hope, ultimately, is for some sort of collective action on the part of residential workers.

Until things change I am reluctant to suggest to anyone that they might want to pursue a career in residential care - it is just too dangerous. The kind of climate Joe describes represents the unintended (although for anyone with any knowledge of residential child care, entirely predictable) consequences of abuse inquiries.
 
Mark Smith
...

Hi
 
I could not agree more with what Mark has stated here. It is important that staff understand the role they play as role-models. This however is linked strongly with the culture that prevails at an organisation. If staff are able to deal effectively with any form of allegations, but also play the role of teacher, that will contribute towards children feeling safe, then making allegations will cease.
 
Alfred Harris
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