Dubious experts are paid to tear families apart
A new report condemns the shoddy standards of psychologists' reports in our family courts.
A long overdue scandal hit the headlines last week when a semi-official report exposed one of the murkiest corners of our child protection system – the way that supposed professional “experts” help social workers to remove children from their parents.
A study by Professor Jane Ireland, a forensic psychologist, for the Family Justice Council examined 126 psychological reports trawled at random from family court documents. It found that two thirds of them were “poor” or “very poor” in quality; that 20 per cent of their authors had no proper qualifications; and that no fewer than 90 per cent of the authors were not practising psychologists but appeared to earn their livings, wholly or partly, from writing reports for social workers. Already one psychologist, whose company has made nearly half a million pounds a year from such reports, is under investigation by the General Medical Council.
The picture Prof Ireland conveys is one with which I am only too familiar. I have seen how families can be torn apart largely on the basis of highly dubious psychological evidence designed, as John Hemming MP puts it, to “suit the demands of local authorities”. One mother lost her children, for instance, on the basis of a 235-page report, costing £14,000, which found that she was “likely to have a borderline personality disorder” – without the author ever having met her.
Another woman was found by a psychologist to be “a competent mother” – so the social workers went to a second witness, who found the same. They then commissioned a third, who at last came up with what they wanted: that the mother had, again, “a borderline personality disorder”. On that basis, her three children were sent for adoption.
A married couple lost their daughter because the father, who had had four “psychological assessments”, saw no reason to submit himself to a fifth. The Court of Appeal found that he seemed to be putting his “emotional needs before those of his child”, and ordered that the child be adopted.
One contentious area, for instance, is where parents are accused of having injured infants who are found to have small fractures to their bones. A fashionable theory, pioneered by a Dr Kleinman in the US, holds that such fractures are a sure indicator of “non-accidental injury”, ie the child must have been abused. In one case (which I was able to report last year because the judge, unusually, published his judgment) it was clear that all the four medical witnesses had supported this “Kleinman theory”, unquestioningly accepted by the judge.
But other experts strongly disagree, citing studies which suggest that such fractures may quite often arise naturally from a deficiency of vitamin D (as tests had shown was the case with this particular mother). When I showed the judgment to a doctor expert in this field, he immediately recognised three of the witnesses as doctors who “go round from one court to another to support the Kleinman theory”. Since no one was in court to challenge them, the heartbroken mother – like many before her – lost her son.
Several scandals have hit the headlines in recent years involving doctors struck off after making a reputation as witnesses, pushing some theory about “brittle bones”, “shaken baby syndrome” or “Munchausen syndrome by proxy” which was eventually exposed as fallacious. But these causes célèbres have centred on criminal courts, where evidence can be put more rigorously to the test than is required by the much laxer procedures of family courts. As I have observed before, once a court system is allowed to hide itself away behind a wall of secrecy, the chances are high that it will become corrupted. A perfect example is the role played in our family courts by many of these professional “experts”. The good work Prof Ireland has begun cannot be allowed to stop there.