Parents facing ‘unfair child abuse claims’ over bruising

Parents are being investigated for possible child abuse because of the misinterpretation of guidelines on bruising in babies, it’s claimed.

Official guidelines from health watchdog NICE for hospital workers suggest such bruising is very uncommon.

University of Central Lancashire research suggested the guidelines mean social services are investigating parents too often.

Its research said more than a quarter of babies are bruised accidentally.

One mother had her baby removed from her care for a year by social services, until its bruising was found to have been caused by a medical condition.

‘Exaggerated effects’

Lead researcher Prof Andy Bilson told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme that “social workers are in danger of having to take decisions based on really misleading interpretations of research”.

The NICE guidelines are used by local authorities to draw up their own policies.

Some 91 of the 152 councils in England have specific guidance on how staff should respond to possible abuse.

More than three-quarters (77%) of these do not give front-line staff such as nurses, health visitors and GPs the freedom to make judgements about the causes of a bruise, the university’s researchers said.

In five local authorities, a formal child protection investigation must be undertaken when a single bruise in a pre-mobile child – who cannot crawl or walk – is discovered.

This is despite research from 2015 showing accidental bruising occurred in 27% of pre-mobile babies – those that cannot crawl or walk – monitored over a seven to eight-week period, researchers said.

Chelsea and Theo’s story

Chelsea Kirtley had her baby Theo removed from her and the father’s care for more than a year.

She initially took him to the GP worried that the bruising was a sign of meningitis.

But when further marks appeared, Stockton Council social services accused them of harming their child.

“It felt they were out to get us,” Chelsea explained. “We got escorted by police off the hospital ward, with all the [other] parents looking at us.”

Her son was placed into the care of his aunt, and then his grandmother.

The case was only dropped after Ms Kirtley had Theo examined by a geneticist, who diagnosed him with hypermobility syndrome – a condition that causes people to bruise easily.

But she says the stress caused her to split from the father and leave her job.

She was made homeless and now lives with Theo and her mother in a hostel.

The council said it “relied heavily on medical views throughout” its assessment of Theo, and that the safety of a child always has to be its number one consideration.

The tragedies of children such as Victoria Climbie and Baby P, in which warning signs were missed by social workers, are thought to have changed how local authorities deal with cases of bruising.

Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck used to be a social worker in Sunderland, which has some of the strictest guidance.

“I never came across a case where a [pre-mobile] baby had a bruise, and that bruise was purely accidental,” she said.

“I think you should always err on the side of caution.”

She said the public would want social services to “do the right thing and make sure they had a full medical assessment to find out whether or not this was deliberate”.

‘Other dangers’

Prof Bilson acknowledges social workers have a duty to look into incidents of bruising, but said some parents would be put off from taking their children to see a GP for fear of being investigated – stopping the child from getting the medical care it needs.

“If this puts into people’s minds even a hesitation of taking their child to a doctors, there’s a real chance sooner or later some child will die due to this policy,” he said.

NICE did not comment on the claim its guidelines could be misleading.

It said its original advice was aimed at medical professionals working in hospitals.

New guidance has been issued by NICE aimed more at social workers and teachers.

Watch the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel.

The bereaved parents losing up to £100,000 in benefits

Some 3,500 people with children have qualified for the new bereavement support payment after the death of their partner, new figures show.

Under the system, some are losing as much as £100,000 over time compared to its predecessor.

Children who have lost a parent may not get the emotional support they need because of changes to the bereavement benefits their families receive, a bereavement task force has said.

We meet two mothers worried about what will happen when their benefits run out.

“When we knew Irfon was terminally ill, we didn’t talk about what it would be like at the end,” Becky Williams tells the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme.

She lives with her two young boys in Bangor. Her husband, Irfon – a children’s mental health nurse, like her – died in May 2017 after years of battling cancer.

“We lived with a lot of stress, knowing that he was terminally ill and that one day he wasn’t going to recover,” she adds.

“You feel like it’s happening to someone else, not you. And just seeing the children was really difficult,” she says, breaking into tears.

Knowing Irfon was going to die meant that Becky had to contemplate life without him by her side.

But one thing that did give her peace of mind, she says, was knowing that she would be supported in bringing up her children by bereavement benefits.

She expected to receive a widowed parent’s allowance – which consisted of £2,000 up front, plus a payment of up to £470 each month for up to 20 years, based on National Insurance contributions.

But last year this was replaced by the bereavement support payment. This meant Becky was given £3,500 up front, but that her monthly payments of £350 would stop after 18 months.

The new system applies only to those who have lost a husband, wife or civil partner.

The government said the old system acted like a trap that prevented bereaved parents adjusting to single life, but it is an idea Becky rejects.

She says in six months’ time, when the support payments stop, her family will still be grieving, but the strain on her finances will mean she won’t be able to give her children the time and support she feels they need.

Vicky Anning, from charity Widowed and Young (Way), says she knows of bereaved parents who – without the financial “cushion” the old benefits system would have provided – will have to do two or three jobs, “when a child should be spending quality time with their remaining parent”.

She adds: “The government always said the changes to the system were not a cost-cutting exercise, but it’s hard to see that it was anything but that.”

The charity is part of the Life Matters task force, a group of charities and experts which were angered by last year’s changes to the bereavement system and have been working together to help those affected.

It claims the new system has made an “already distressing situation even worse”, with many families said to be “incredibly distraught” about their finances.

The Department for Work and Pensions said the new bereavement support payment “restores fairness to the system and focuses support during the 18-month period after a loved-one dies, when someone may need it most”.

“It is also easier to claim, tax-free and does not affect entitlement to other benefits, helping those on the lowest incomes the most.”

Conservative MP Philip Dunne told the Victoria Derbyshire programme it was also a way to encourage the parent to “continue in work wherever possible”.

He doubted that there was “widespread concern”, saying none of his constituents in Ludlow had contacted him.

‘Kind of laughable’

Some 3,500 people with dependent children have qualified for the new bereavement support payment between April 2017 and January 2018, a Freedom of Information request by the programme has found.

One of those is Chloe Leaper, whose partner, Matt, died from bone cancer, aged 39, in May last year.

She lives with her 19-month-old daughter, Thea.

Even while still receiving the benefits, she has been unable to afford to stay in the family home, and has moved into a room in Matt’s parents’ house.

“The impact is kind of unfathomable,” she says, “I don’t think my brain lets me think about it.

“I have lost our life together as we had it. All I have is the pictures on the wall.

“I have gone from being a wife to a wonderful husband to being a mother and living with my in-laws.”

She describes the new benefits system as “kind of laughable”.

“I was so pleased Matt didn’t know [they wouldn’t receive the widowed parent’s allowance] because he had always paid his National Insurance – and he thought that was what we would be on until she was 18.

“It’s not about me, it’s about supporting Thea.”

‘Arbitrary time’

Chloe describes the new system as a “very cynical government decision”, saying it affects “the people who can do the least about it – because we have just lost our partners”.

She adds: “We are trying to rebuild our lives, and I don’t know how Thea is going to react when she realises she has no father. And that will affect her at different points in her life – and how much time I will need to take off work to deal with that.”

She adds, sarcastically: “It’s great to know that in 18 months I will be over my grieving and be able to go back to work full-time.

“It’s such a random, arbitrary time. It sounds long enough for people to go, ‘Oh yes, that’s long enough’.

“But when you are actually in the situation, it’s not.”

Watch the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel.