THE handling of child abuse investigations in Scotland has been thrown into question after a sheriff found the methods used by police and social workers while interviewing a young girl were so flawed that he recommended they be retrained.
• The little girl was at the centre of an access battle between her estranged parents. Picture, posed by model: Complimentary
In a devastating court judgment - which experts said highlighted "serious systemic problems" of malpractice throughout the child protection service - their conduct was described as worse than in the interviewing of children that led to the Orkney child abuse inquiry in 1991.
The country's leading expert on the forensic interviewing of children said the case exposed a problem at the heart of child protection that was harming youngsters' welfare.
A senior insider at the Faculty of Advocates warned that the elements of the case were "not untypical" and said there was disquiet among lawyers about the consequences of inadequate or poorly understood training in civil and criminal cases.
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The sheriff's ruling concerned a child custody case in which a man had been denied unsupervised access to his daughter after his wife made claims he had touched their child intimately.
The ruling, which dismissed the abuse claims outright, found a senior social worker and police officers attempted to coerce the five-year-old girl into repeating allegations that she had been sexually abused before subjecting her to an "unjustified" invasive and intimate medical examination.
The court found there was a catalogue of inappropriate direct questioning, including leading and closed questions.
According to the judgment, the interviews broke almost all the rules set out in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Protocol which is regarded as the gold standard of interviewing children.
Sheriff Neil Morrison called for the removal of the social worker, Tracey Black, and two police officers, Detective Constable Colin Johnston and PC Susan Purnell, from child interviewing duties after he ruled their work was "damaging".
The Edinburgh sheriff also recommended that Ms Black, the senior social worker from the city council's child protection team, be relieved of all child protection duties until she had been retrained, after he found she had asked inappropriate and leading questions during the alleged child abuse case and put forward records of interviews he considered to be "disingenuous".
In an article published in the Scots Law Times today, Dr David La Rooy of Abertay University and advocate John Halley said they wished to "highlight a serious systemic problem which is harming the welfare of children".
They wrote: "The failures in this case are not dissimilar to the kinds of malpractice (we] regularly encounter in our respective practices in other cases of joint investigative interviewing of children in Scotland."
The senior advocate said: "There is a problem that the social worker allocated to a case controls the narrative and I see frequently in child contact cases and child referrals, that they find themselves seeking to prove an allegation - often in a haphazard way - and that isn't in the interests of justice or of the child."
Yesterday, Lothian and Borders Police confirmed it had acted on the report by the sheriff, relieving the officers of child interviewing duties and committing itself to implementing "all necessary improvements" in this area.
But Edinburgh City Council insisted, despite having removed Ms Black from the case in question, it retained full confidence in the social worker and she remained on child protection duty.
A council spokesman said: "We are satisfied that our social worker was acting in the best interests of the child and they continue to work in child protection. We have made some changes to the worker's responsibilities as the fact that there was a court case makes it difficult for her to continue with this particular family."
The concerns arose during an application by the father for contact with his two children. The application had been resisted by his estranged partner who left their home in 2008 with the children after making an allegation that he had sexually abused their daughter.
A full investigation, including joint interviews with police and social workers, led to an intimate examination of the girl, a move the child psychologist said was "unjustified"; had been a "significant event" for a girl of that age; and one she was uncomfortable with.
The picture was complicated by the discovery of e-mail correspondence between the mother and a lawyer who advised her of "dirty tricks" that she might use to secure residence with the children and cut off contact with the father completely.
Sheriff Morrison ruled there was no evidence any such abuse had taken place and the daughter had repeatedly indicated that the alleged abuse had not happened. He allowed unsupervised contact with the father and urged the parents to work out arrangements for themselves. He also ruled there was no case for the daughter or her brother to be on the at-risk register.
The judge listed problems with the way the two interviews were conducted, led by a senior social worker but with a police officer present. He described the second interview as "one of the worst I have seen".
He continued: "Dr R (a child psychologist] considered the interviewing of (the girl] to be worse that the interviewing of children that led to the Orkney inquiry because here it was so deliberate.
It alarmed them that all these years later there was direct questioning of the child because she was not saying what the interviewers wanted to hear. (The witness] was concerned at the driven nature of the interviews in drawing things out of the child and putting things in the child's mind." The sheriff was shocked the interviews were not recorded but written up later based on handwritten notes.
The notes were never transcribed and the police and social work witnesses could barely read them themselves in court. In transcribing the notes, Sheriff Morrison said the social worker had been "disingenuous" in her interpretation of what the girl had said.
Furthermore, the social worker still appeared to be "tragically unaware of the dangers of mixing investigative and therapeutic or 'direct work'."
A Lothian and Borders police spokesman said the force was aware of the judgment made by Sheriff Morrison.
"In regard to the police officers present at the interview, both have been removed from the list of joint investigative interview trained officers. One officer does not wish to undertake such duties in the future, and therefore will not be redeployed or retrained.
"The other officer is waiting to be retrained and will not be deployed until retraining has taken place."
A Scottish Government spokesman said it had been working with partners to update best practice guidance on interviewing child witnesses which included encouraging the use of visual recording of interviews.
Few areas of the law require greater sensitivity in their handling than allegations of child sex abuse. Such cases, badly handled, can be devastating. Scotland has a blemished record in this area. Do we have a serious systemic problem?
Every suspicion taken seriously
LOCAL authorities have an obligation to protect children under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.
If a child-protection referral is received by a "core agency" - social services, health bodies or police - a child-protection case conference may then be held.
If the child is found to be at risk, their name will be placed on the Child Protection Register.
A referral must contain details of why concerns have been raised, with procedures dictating that anyone with suspicions must establish some basic facts, without using leading questions such as "Did he..?" or "Did she..?".
Information must be included on the imminent risk to the child and if there is a suspicion that other children may be at risk. The agencies have a duty to treat every referral seriously.
The leading questions
THESE are some of the questions the child was asked:
"Is the place the doctor looked at where your dad tickles you?"
One of the police officers involved admitted this could be a leading question. The child psychologist said it was "extremely leading" and the judge said it should never have been asked.
"You've got a really good memory. Shall we have one more go at remembering what you told mummy? I can take you home so that you can play with Play Doh if you can remember."
One child psychologist described this question as a bribe, and another said it encouraged the girl to remember what she had told her mother - and not necessarily the truth.
"It would be really helpful if you could remember."
Said to the girl after she said she could not remember. A child psychologist said this told the child that what she had said was not good enough and put pressure on the youngster to say what the adults wanted.
"Is anything happening that makes you a bit sore or sad?"
This was criticised by the child psychologist for introducing something that the child had not said. The girl had given no indication she was sore or sad.
Other deficiencies highlighted included:
• The interviewers did not have all the relevant information to hand when they conducted the first interview.
• The official records of the interviews were found to be disingenuous.
• There was no closure phase to the interview, contravening Scottish Government guidance that is intended to stop children feeling like they have not failed or disappointed the interviewers. Cross-examination of the social worker revealed she did not believe this was an essential part of the interview. Later, she claimed there had been a closure phase but it was not recorded.