Parent carer blame with added stereotyping

On the 2nd September BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour[1] featured the recent Cerebra research report ‘Institutionalising Parent Carer Blame’.[2]  The programme included compelling accounts from parents of disabled children who had been traumatised by children’s social care assessors who had treated them in a way that suggested that they were suspected of neglecting and / or abusing their children.  The research report highlighted the fact that policy guidance and local practice meant that the majority of English children’s services departments operate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to children deemed to be ‘in need’ – regardless of whether that ‘need’ arose from their impairments or from evidence that they were being neglected or abused by their parents.  It argued that this approach amounts to a gross violation of the rights of disabled children and their families under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for their private and family lives) and Article 14 (unlawful discrimination by failing to treat differently families whose circumstances are materially different).

A prominent and highly respected social work organisation was asked by the BBC to respond to the parents’ accounts and the Cerebra research report.  It accepted that the treatment of the parents whose stories had been featured was ‘completely unacceptable’ – but it then explained that one of the reasons why all children’s bedrooms had to be inspected and all children interviewed alone was because disabled children were up to 8 times more likely to be abused (than non-disabled children).  The clear implication being that this ‘fact’ somehow justified these gross interferences.  Let’s just unpick the rationale behind this assertion.

The first point is that the evidence on disabled children experiencing increased levels of abuse is flaky.  The key paper on this issue[3] is replete with reservations about the limited research base.  It is a meta-analysis of a number of studies – only two of which were UK based.  It concluded that there was a vital need for methodologically rigorous research but that on the evidence available, disabled children were between three and four times more at risk of abuse than non-disabled children (I have no idea where the social work organisation’s ‘up to eight times’ comes from).

The research is however at pains to explain that the data does not identify where the abuse comes from – ie whether it is internal (family generated) or external (bullying / hate crimes / institutional abuse etc).  In this latter respect it refers to issues such as societal stigma, discrimination, negative traditional beliefs, ignorance within communities, lack of social support for carers, communication difficulties and problems within institutional settings (including hospitals).  It also notes that some of the data does not account for reverse causation (ie, that the disability arose / resulted from prior abuse).

So can all statutory organisations and highly respected social work professional groups pause before coming out with statistics of this kind – as if they communicate some ‘self-evident’ truth: they do not.

What is no less troubling about the social work organisation’s use of this problematic statistic is its implication that stereotyping can be used to justify across-the-board human rights interferences.  This approach would justify (for example): police stop and searches based on racial profiling; women being required to pay higher pension contributions (as they tend to live longer);[4] and the streaming of children from poor families in the bottom school classes as the ‘evidence’ suggests that they are more likely to have a lower educational attainment than children from richer families.

Surely a social work organisation should understand the perils of stereotyping. As Lord Justice Laws has said:[5]

The mistake that might arise in relation to stereotyping would be a supposition that the stereotype is only vicious if it is untrue. But that cannot be right. If it were, it would imply that direct discrimination can be justified; whereas it is entirely plain that the legislature has advisedly chosen to allow justification of indirect, but not direct, discrimination.

The Cerebra research report highlights serious problems: problems also identified by the Chief Social Workers for Adults and the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families[6] and the independent review of children’s social care.[7]  It would be helpful if everyone (respected social work organisations included) would accept that the current approach – the policy and actual face-to-face practice – has got to change.


[1] Accessible at -the feature takes place between 32.23 mins and 49.15 mins into the programme.
[2] Luke Clements and Ana Laura Aiello Institutionalising Parent Carer Blame (Cerebra 2021).
[3] Lisa Jones, Mark A Bellis, Sara Wood, Karen Hughes, Ellie McCoy, Lindsay Eckley, Geoff Bates, Christopher Mikton, Tom Shakespeare, Alana Officer Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies The Lancet Vol 380 September 8, 2012 899.
[4] For a wonderful analysis of this issue see – Jonathan Simon The Ideological Effects of Actuarial Practices Law & Society Review Vol. 22, No. 4, Special Issue: Law and Ideology (1988), pp. 771-800.
[5] European Roma Rights Centre & Others v. The Immigration Officer at Prague Airport & the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees [2003] EWCA Civ 666 at para 108.
[6] Chief Social Workers for Adults and the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families A spectrum of opportunity: an exploratory study of social work practice with autistic young adults and their families (Department of Health and Social Care 2021).
[7] An independent review of children’s social care (chaired by Josh MacAlister) The Case for change (2021) announced by the Secretary of State for Education on the 15th January 2021.

Posted 7 September 2021.