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Safeguarding Children in Therapeutic Settings: The Child, the Therapist and the Court Process

What are the constraints of therapy with children who are in court proceedings, and who may be called upon to give evidence? Where does a child’s emotional welfare sit in the process? In her fourth occasional blog, independent social worker Gretchen Precey sheds light on the legal procedures and therapeutic pitfalls involved, and shares how supporting alleged victims of sexual abuse to “talk about not talking about it” may sometimes be the best we can offer.

Many years ago, I was involved in training social workers and police officers in conducting joint evidential interviews with children about whom there were concerns regarding sexual abuse. One of the themes of the course was managing the competing interests between the need to consider the individual circumstances of the child and family, whose world may have been turned upside-down by what was alleged to have happened, and the objectives of the criminal justice system whose focus was evidence gathering with a view to achieving a ‘result’ in court and the conviction of the offender.

That tension between justice and welfare in the legal system can persist long after the interview is concluded. Should the Crown Prosecution Service judge that the content of the interview supports the child’s allegations beyond reasonable doubt (the standard required for a conviction in criminal proceedings) and the case is listed for prosecution in the crown court that is seldom the end of the anxiety for the child. It is often a long wait before the hearing, years in some cases, that can be fraught with postponements and technical hitches along the way.

Meanwhile, the child and their family may have been advised not to speak about what happened until the case is heard. Pre-trial therapeutic help for the child living with the aftermath of the experience can be very restricted in terms of what may and may not be discussed for fear of contaminating the evidence or giving grounds for the defence to suggest that the child has been ‘coached’ by the therapist in their sessions.

This may put a therapist working with the child in the very difficult and unfamiliar position of discouraging the child from using the sessions to explore with them the very thing that they find most troubling. Although the guidelines for conducting these interviews (Achieving Best Evidence) allows for the child to have pre-trial therapy as long as the offence itself is not discussed, in my experience the police can be wary of child witnesses having therapeutic help of any kind before the case is heard in court.

If therapeutic help is arranged, or if an existing therapeutic relationship is allowed to continue, it is essential that the therapist makes detailed notes of the sessions. These may be required to be produced in court, with the possibility that the therapist themselves could be called to give evidence.

My specialisation in working with child sexual abuse also led me to establish a therapeutic group for girls who had made allegations of sexual maltreatment: some of whom were currently awaiting court proceedings or had already been through that process. In the interest of not being in danger of compromising evidence, some of our conversations had to focus on ‘talking about not talking about it’ and what that was like and how it was impacting on them. Proscribing what these girls were allowed to talk about did not, in my view, meet their therapeutic needs, but it was as much as I could offer and still be compliant with the requirements of the criminal justice system.

There can also be constraints in meeting the therapeutic needs of children who are involved in care proceedings in family court. With the pressure on resources in local authorities it is often the case that emotional help for children and families is not prioritised until care proceedings are being considered or have already been issued. And then it is part of an assessment process (the Public Law Outline, known as PLO) that is meant to last no more than 26 weeks from issuing proceedings to the final hearing.

Families are sometimes overwhelmed with appointments during this pre-hearing period with a tight deadline to have everything ready for court; not always a conducive environment for therapy to take place in. It may also mean that the therapist feels that their brief is quite circumscribed by what the local authority believes should be the focus of the work, with a limit on the number of sessions that can be offered. With the high turnover in social work staff, the therapist may also feel inadequately briefed by someone who doesn’t know the family well and is not fully aware of the problems in their dynamics.

In the current risk-averse environment within children’s services there may be a reluctance by the local authority to tolerate the uncertainty created by working therapeutically with the family while the children are still living with them. Removal of the children may be seen as the ‘safe option’ in ensuring their protection, but at what cost to the future of the family?


Gretchen Precey

Gretchen Precey is a qualified social worker who has worked with children and families for 40 years, in a number of local authorities across the country and, for the past 20 years, as an independent social worker. She undertakes parenting assessments as an expert witness in family court and consults to different agencies on various aspects of safeguarding and child protection. Gretchen also facilitates training courses for professionals involved in child welfare work. Among her clinical interests are safeguarding children about whom there are concerns regarding Fabricated or Induced Illness (formerly known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy) and working with inter-familial child sexual abuse. More information can be found on her website

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