Ann Stuart MBE, is a retired police officer having served 34 years with the Metropolitan Police Service the last 20 in child abuse investigation initially as an investigator, then child protection policy writer followed by training manager for the Specialist Child Abuse Investigation Command delivering and developing specialist child witness interview training and investigation. Since retirement she has delivered child interview training and investigation both in Abu Dhabi and Gibraltar. Ann’s passion is to support Triangle ethos of repositioning children in the justice system as competent communicators by leading on the Forensic Questioning of Children and Careful Communication with Children training. Visit www.Triangle.org.uk
Our language matters – Why we should stop using the term ‘Disclosure’ in child protection
As a former child abuse investigator from the Metropolitan Police, I am familiar with the word ‘disclosure’. The term is regularly used when receiving or providing a referral and I would often ask or be asked ‘Has the child made a disclosure?’.
I never gave this word much thought until recently whilst working with Triangle https://triangle.org.uk, an organisation based in Sussex that specialises in working with young children, and children with communication needs. Despite my years in child protection I was not aware that the Cleveland Inquiry in 1987 was probably the first to identify how this word can misrepresent and carry risk in respect of what may or may not have happened.
What a revelation as I, like many, had never considered this term an issue, so I needed to investigate and carry out some research to support Triangle’s view. After all it is a term that is entrenched in our child protection narrative.
Triangle’s teaching talks about how unhelpful the word ‘disclosure’ is in the world of child protection and safeguarding for four reasons: -
- Disclosure ‘the act of making something known or the fact that is made known’ (Cambridge English Dictionary). This assumes that the child has something to tell and that something has happened. It may be that neither are true.
- Disclosure sounds like a one-off, one way event, where the adult is a passive recipient of words that a child says, instead of an interaction between two people.
- ‘Disclosure’ has a very specific meaning in legal terms, creating further confusion, as it refers to the sharing of information and documents for litigation or criminal processes.
- It excludes children with communication needs or children who are non-verbal, after all how would they ‘disclose’?
A view by the Judiciary and Government Guidance
Sarah Phillimore a prominent barrister in the Family Courts, warns against the use of this term in her article ‘Interviewing children – have lessons from history been forgotten’, Family Law (Vol 49), June 2019 pp 598-600 – where she argues that the term can ‘reinforce a biased position of believing the child’s allegation without thorough investigation’.
A family court Judge HHJ MacDonald in 2016 stated in the case of AS v TH (False Allegations of Abuse) (2016 EWHC532 Fam): -
‘’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, 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’. HHJ MacDonald
Finally, you will not find this word mentioned in Achieving Best Evidence Guidance 2011 or Safeguarding Children in Education 2019 (Department of Education) or indeed Working Together’ 2018 which has one reference to disclosure relating to Female Genital Mutilation.
The main word or phrase used in the statutory guidance is ‘concern’ or ‘concern about a child’s welfare’, not ‘disclosure’.
So what could we use instead?
Concern (not specific so actually ideal, but would need detail)
- Allegation (a statement, made without giving proof, that someone has done something wrong or illegal)?
- Child said something?
- Child’s behaviour was concerning?
Any of the above would be suitable with more narrative in the written record about what and how the child communicated and what the adult’s response was, including the questions asked.
We have to see this from the child’s perspective, as children don’t know what ‘making a disclosure’ means and research is clear that children have and do communicate what is worrying them using their words, signs, behaviour or actions and adults need to learn to notice, hear and respond safely.
Noticing possible concerns, rather than waiting for that ‘disclosure’, is an interactive process and how an adult responds when children may be beginning to show or tell about possible concerns is crucial and can determine whether they are kept safe.