A response to the Northern Ireland Executive's consultation.

The intrusion into family life

It is social workers and the police who will have to enforce new laws against the physical punishment of children by parents.

Whether there is an outright ban, or more legal restrictions on smacking the end result will be more state power to intervene into family life.

Here there is an immediate problem. Many of the social workers who are in charge of the child protection system hold the view that all smacking is child abuse and should be illegal. The question is: are such social workers able to separate their own private views (opposed by the vast majority of parents) from the way they carry out their duties?

The judgement of social workers can be coloured by their own views as to how things should be. If social workers abuse their powers and treat loving parents as child abusers, then innocent families will be shattered. When social workers get things wrong many children can be harmed, as a number of high profile cases have shown. Large numbers of children were removed from their families in Cleveland and Orkney only to be returned traumatised when the allegations were accepted as false.

But there are many more cases of social workers acting inappropriately which never make the headlines. The following is a possible scenario of what could happen now, based on existing law, where a complaint about a parent is made to Social Services. It is based on accounts of real cases.

A possible scenario

An anonymous telephone call is made to a social worker alleging that a parent is 'beating' his child. This triggers a duty under Section 66 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 requiring the local authority to investigate. The threshold for this duty is very low. The suspicion of significant harm is enough. It is apparently very rare for a court to overrule a social worker's decision to investigate under Section 66.

The social worker pays a visit. The parents deny any beating. They do, however, indicate that they believe in smacking. They add that one of the children was smacked on the bottom the day before, the day of the anonymous complaint.
This particular social worker believes all smacking constitutes child abuse. She tells the parents that they should not smack their children. The parents disagree and indicate they will continue to smack.

The social worker asks if the parents will allow the child to be examined by a doctor to see if there are any marks on the child's bottom. The parents decline, saying it will upset the child too much, assuring the social worker that the smacking resulted in nothing more than a few minutes redness and a bout of tears. The child was hugged and professed to be sorry and went off to play.

The social worker is unhappy with the parents' commitment to smacking. She meets with colleagues who share her views. They decide to seek an Emergency Protection Order from the court in order to have the child examined by a doctor.

Before the court, the social worker describes a distressed call from a neighbour who heard the child crying after being smacked. She also indicates that the parents were completely unrepentant about the incident, and that they were secretive about the nature of the injuries which the smacking caused.

An Emergency Protection Order is granted and the child is taken from the parents home with the assistance of a police officer. The father is furious. He is warned that his conduct constitutes evidence that he is unable to 'manage his anger' and that the social worker's view of his abilities as a parent are thereby further diminished.

No evidence of any bruising or tenderness is found on the child. The child is returned to the parents. A child protection conference is called involving the local police, the child's teacher, the local health visitor and representatives of social services. In the absence of bruising or any evidence that an implement was used, the police officer advises that a prosecution would not succeed.

However, the parents' admission of the smack and their unwillingness to refrain from smacking, combined with evidence of the father's 'poor anger management' result in the child being placed on the local Child Protection Register. The parents are advised that they must attend parenting classes to learn alternative methods of discipline. They are also warned that any further incident of physical punishment will be investigated.

A core group meets regularly to monitor progress and all agencies (such as health visitors, teachers etc) are told that they are required to report any concerns immediately to the allocated social worker. Review conferences take place at regular intervals.

The chain of events from when a referral is made to long term social services involvement is inexorable. We now consider a Scottish case which hit the national news headlines.

A real scenario

In October 2001 a French tourist, Monsieur Boquelet, found himself locked up in a prison cell for two days after he was arrested for smacking his son. He was arrested for assault after two passers-by saw him smack his misbehaving eight-year-old son outside an Indian restaurant in Edinburgh.

M. Boquelet was on holiday with his wife and son in Edinburgh when the police arrested him. The child was taken to hospital but doctors could find no injuries at all. It was reported that the police claimed that smacking your child was illegal in Scotland. Not surprisingly M. Boquelet and his wife are very upset: he must return for his trial in February 2002.

This case is very worrying because in Scotland 'reasonable chastisement' is currently a defence for parents who are wrongly prosecuted for assault. This is the same as the law that operates in Northern Ireland. The Scottish Executive wants to bring in severe restrictions on the parental right to smack, including banning the smacking of all children aged under three. If the Scottish Executive gets its way, cases like M. Boquelet's may proliferate out of control and lead to thousands of ordinary parents, including English parents who visit Scotland, being locked up.


A response to the Northern Ireland Executive's consultation on the physical punishment of children

2002 The Christian Institute