Listening to children and ‘disclosure’

Interviewing children: Cleveland and ABE guidance


In AS v TH (False Allegations of Abuse) [2016] EWHC 532 Fam, MacDonald J said of the term ‘disclosure’ cases where child abuse is suspected that the Report of the Inquiry into Child Abuse in Cleveland 1987 (Cmd 412: Cleveland Report) contains a variety of important guidance with respect to cases involving allegations of sexual abuse and children proceedings. Before setting out his thoughts on this the judge – a highly experienced children lawyer – noted, in passing:


[33] … despite the fact that the use of the term ‘disclosure’ to describe a statement or allegation of abuse made by a child has been deprecated since the Cleveland Report due to it precluding the notion that the abuse might not have occurred (see para 12.34(1)), every professional who gave evidence in this case (except the Children’s Guardian) used the term ‘disclosure’ to describe what the children had said to them).


And now a prompt for this note is that last Friday (2 February 2018) Resolution (which represents a group of family lawyers, and assert expertise in children law) and NSPCC both put out publicity asking for replies for a survey on ‘receiving disclosures’:


We would like invite you to complete our survey on professionals’ experiences of listening to children and receiving disclosures of abuse and neglect. Our ambition is to develop a practical resource that will support professionals working with children to confidently deal with disclosures of abuse and to improve children’s experiences of the disclosure process.


Resolution backed this up with a tweet:


The @NSPCC is looking for input from professionals working with children and family courts to inform a new resource to help professionals deal with disclosures. The survey should take 15 minutes and all submissions are anonymous via 


Neither organisation has responded to my concern at the mismatch between what they are sending out, and what was said – over 30 years ago – in the Cleveland Report. Both should be well aware of the report.


Yesterday (5 February 2018) Sarah Phillimore posted: on what’s in a word, like ‘disclosure’.


Mr Justice MacDonald and the Cleveland Report


MacDonald J continued in relation the Cleveland Report and to how professionals can respond to worries about a child being abused:


[35] Where a child makes an allegation of abuse to a professional, the relevant guidance for professionals to whom allegations of abuse are reported makes clear the following principles with respect to the initial contact with the child.

[36] In the departmental advice What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused (HM Government, March 2015) (replacing previous guidance published in 2006) states that before referring to children’s services or the Police an attempt should be made to establish the basic facts. Within this context, the following is said at [28]:

“The signs of child abuse might not always be obvious and a child might not tell anyone what is happening to them. You should therefore question behaviours if something seems unusual and try to speak to the child, alone, if appropriate, to seek further information”

And at [29]:

“If a child reports, following a conversation you have initiated or otherwise, that they are being abused and neglected, you should listen to them, take their allegation seriously, and reassure them that you will take action to keep them safe.”


And then to ABE Guidance and video recording of alleged victims:


[37] The statutory guidance Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings (March 2011) makes clear at [2.4] that the need to consider a video recorded interview in respect of the allegations may not be immediately apparent to professionals involved prior to the police being informed. [Para 2.5 continues]:

“Any initial questioning should be intended to elicit a brief account of what is alleged to have taken place; a more detailed account should not be pursued at this stage but should be left until the formal interview takes place. Such a brief account should include where and when the alleged incident took place and who was involved or otherwise present.”

[38] The ABE Guidance goes on to state at [2.6] under the heading ‘Initial Contact with Victims and Witnesses’ that a person engaged in early discussion with an alleged victim or witness should, as far as possible, (a) listen, (b) not stop a free recall of events and (c) where it is necessary to ask questions, ask open-ended or specific closed questions rather than forced-choice, leading or multiple questions and ask no more questions than are necessary to take immediate action.


ABE Guidance


The subject of interviewing children takes the practitioner back to Chapter 12 of the Cleveland report, which is entitled ‘Listening to the Child’ and summarises the evidence of a number of the child psychiatrists who gave evidence to the inquiry. The purpose of the interview must be ‘to hear what the child has to say’ (§12.12) where the child is of sufficient ‘age and understanding’ (§12.10). The interviewer must use open questions (§§12.24; 12.34.4) and understand that there may be a variety of reasons why the child is speaking or is not willing to: the abuse has occurred; the child does not want to speak or is in denial; or the abuse has not occurred (§12.25). Interviewers must have an open mind (§12.34.3: which makes the term ‘disclosure’ such bad practice). Those conducting interviews must be trained (§12.34.2&11).


These recommendations are developed on the back of interviewing for court in criminal proceedings following Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 Pt 2 in ABE Guidance. The Guidance is clear: no assumptions as to anything that has happened – which had bedevilled the initial investigations by doctors in Cleveland – must be made by anyone interviewing a child. An open mind and open questions are essential.



Cleveland report


The report of the Butler-Sloss inquiry into child abuse in Cleveland (HMSO, Cm 412) was published on 6 July 1988. (A helpful summary of the report from BMJ of 16 July 1988 is at .) On 21 August 2014 the report of Prof Alexis Jay into child sexual exploitation was published ( ) and is now the subject of a Commons Committee inquiry.


A discretionary inquiry (ie not under Inquiries Act 2005) has been set up by the Home Secretary on to inquire into child sexual abuse, though in controversial circumstances (see eg in relation to the role of its proposed chair Fiona Woolf). Its terms of reference are yet to be published.


In a very different part of the same child protection forest, Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division has set up a work group which has issued a modest consultation on dealing with ‘children and vulnerable witnesses’ in court ( ).  This will be considered separately.


What has changed since 1988?


The Cleveland report was an influential document in the field of child protection and children law; and it was an important factor in the reform plans which lead to Children Act 1989 the following year. One of its more striking recommendations was that children must be treated as individuals not ‘objects of concern’. This attitude developed from another development in child law reform deriving from Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech AHA [1986] 1 AC 112, [1985] UKHL 7: that the views of children ‘of age and understanding (Children Act 1989 s 1(3)(a)) must be heard by the courts when their futures and welfare were being considered.


In terms of Rotherham, I suspect, one of the more important legacies of Cleveland is Working Together to Safeguard Children (now in its March 2013 edition: It is too early yet to say; but it seems highly likely that Working Together (and its demands under Children Act 2004) was not followed in Rotherham. Were its elected members and staff working for the council (as well as local police) aware of Working Together and the 2004, of how it is intended to work and its significance for children in their area? I doubt it.


Is Working Together working?


At this stage we can only pose questions; but any child sexual abuse inquiry – which must surely be chaired by a judge of Supreme Court or Court of Appeal level (as with the recent press inquiry under Lord Justice Levison)? – must address such issues as:


  • Is Working Together working?
  • Are children being listened to: ie not just heard: but is what they say truly acted upon by those whose duty it is to act?
  • How easy is it for children to speak to someone who will listen?
  • Are the police listening properly?
  • How are we safe-guarding children; and making sure it happens?
  • And in court (criminal, family court and other hearings), how is their evidence being dealt with; and how sensitively?


There are many, many more issues (I’ve only jotted down a few that spring to mind immediately)…


No doubt putting right what has gone wrong – and what is still going wrong – will involve resources; but that tawdry argument should not let us overlook children, any abuse they may suffer and their wishes and needs (in that order, especially where they are old enough). Politicians should start by reading what some of those who have suffered are saying now: they must be listened too as well.