Choose your words with care, listen as if with someone else’s ears…

I want to talk about language. About the gap between how it’s meant and how it’s received. About what happens when our words are heard by someone standing in a different place to us, and who is wearing very different shoes.


News stories about parents who are suspected of hurting their babies but who are later exonerated often use words like ‘wrongly’ or ‘falsely’ accused. That language, I know, is the language of the parents, although perhaps it suits the purposes of the media too. But I’ve noticed that by the time ‘wrongly’ or ‘falsely’ reaches the ears and eyes of those who are part of the system, it is often received as a direct, personal criticism of individuals as much as it is a way of describing the parents’ experience.

Whilst some of these exonerated parents are aggrieved at their treatment by individuals, others are merely describing what the child protection system has done to them – they are describing that, whilst the outcome was (eventually) right, the process did them wrong. To a parent who has irretrievably lost many months of their child’s early days, who has spent nights worrying whether they will be blamed for something they know they didn’t do, there is no other way to describe it than ‘wrong’. The parent has always known the suspicions were without foundation (false, wrong), and that the protective action was unnecessary. It is no less awful, perhaps harder to bear, to be told this pain was caused for all the right reasons and was well motivated.

For a professional with child protection responsibilities however, the action was necessary because of risk – even though by the end of the process it could be seen that the risk was never in fact there at all.

It’s no comfort to parents to say (as lawyers often do) that well, the process reached the right outcome in the end or (as social workers often do) that we had to act based on what we knew at the time. Those two things may both be true, but they do not erase the wrong done in the meantime, as experienced by the parents – and  by the child.

The problem is, we struggle to find words to differentiate between process and outcome, and between procedural necessity and substantive necessity as understood with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps the media capitalise on this double meaning of ‘wrongly accused’ to grab a headline. But on another level, we as professionals might do better at acknowledging the consequences for those families who never needed the intervention we thought they did by accepting the description of the intervention as a wrongful accusation, even a false one (‘false’ does not only capture intentional falsehoods (lies), it can also mean unknowingly false, or a false premise).

In some cases the labelling of action ‘wrongful’ may reflect a failure on the part of individuals or the system, but in other cases will simply be those where a responsibly-run child protection process has just turned out to have got it wrong. There will always be some cases where, on the basis of the available evidence at the time, a child needs to be temporarily removed to ensure safety pending investigation, and where it later becomes clear the parents have not harmed the child. I dare say those parents still feel profoundly wronged, even if they may intellectually understand the ‘need’ (procedural necessity) for the professionals.

The cries of ‘damned if we do damned if we don’t’ I’ve seen lately are predictable – and true enough. Social workers in particular are given a great responsibility and, frankly, not a lot of support. They are often criticised for things that are not within their power to change, or where others should bear the blame. But we should be able as professionals to acknowledge the wrongness of the situation, and to accommodate and understand it when those wronged wish to express their pain and anger – without it triggering our defence mechanisms. All society can ask of those who carry out child protection functions is for them to do their best and to be thoughtful when exercising their power, and to acknowledge the unavoidable impact of their actions.

‘Lucky’ and ‘grateful’

So much for the language of injustice used by those observing it or subject to it. I’ve noticed too that our own language as professionals deserves some thought – and that it often has the same quality of meaning one thing to us and another to the families who are receiving it. As if perhaps we are speaking a language where the same word is code for something different depending on the intended audience.

By way of example, in a recent article in The Sunday Times we read that the parents of a baby accused of injuring him, but who were subsequently cleared (as a result of expert evidence adduced in family proceedings) were told by the social worker that they should feel ‘lucky’ that they were given contact to their baby five times a week whilst they were under investigation. Emily Dugan writes :

At first the couple were allowed to see Brody [the baby] four days a week in supervised 90-minute visits. The court eventually granted Amy [the mother] one extra visit a week. She said: “I got told how lucky I was to see my son Monday to Friday for an hour and a half a day. But that’s not lucky.”

The article also tells us an apology was given, by the way, although it doesn’t specify if this was one of the specific things the apology covered.

To give another example, in a recent judgment approving the withdrawal of care proceedings, a judge told another young couple who had been suspected of injuring their baby and who had, as a consequence, spent several hard months separated from him (including their first Christmas) that, whilst he was sorry for what they had been put through, they should be ‘grateful’ for the expert evidence that cleared their name*. The Sunday Times wrote about that case here. Louise Tickle (a journalist) was outraged at this language, saying that the language was “jaw-droppingly ill conceived, offensive + upsetting. Imagine being parents of young children removed unnecessarily and being told by a family judge you “should be grateful” for the medical evidence that exonerated you.”

I can see her perspective, because I winced when I read it – but I am also able to see it can be ‘read’ it in a different way from my own perspective as a lawyer within the system. Reading those words, originally spoken but now fixed on the screen, from the perspective of a parent, it is obvious better language might have been chosen.

But I also understand why the language of ‘luck’ and ‘gratitude’ is used : I am sure I’ve used it myself – albeit in some caveated, contextualised form whilst trying to help a client understand what is happening in the case and why everything is taking so long, and how things could frankly be (even) worse. I’m sure I’ve used it when discussing matters with colleagues – for professionals. It’s not unusual for there to be a struggle to find a decent expert who can report within a sensible timescale. I dealt with a hearing recently where the solicitors had been unable to find any expert at all in time for the hearing, and in the same week attended a webinar about the work of the Experts Working Party – so I have had two reminders of how much this is a current issue. And on contact levels, it is fair to say that contact at a frequency of five times a week is probably as frequent as it ever gets whilst a child is in foster care: contact two or three times a week is probably more typical even for babies, for a range of reasons. Whilst we professionals are well aware of the pressures on social workers to find contact centre venues or supervisors, these are neither obvious to parents unfamiliar with the system, nor are such ‘resource issues’ likely to feel to them to be a good enough reason for severe limitations on contact with their little baby who is changing and growing on a daily basis.

Let’s be frank: there is nothing ‘lucky’ about having your baby taken away from you when you have not hurt him, nor in having to snatch short bursts of time with him, missing his firsts and all the time never knowing if he will be coming back. And there is no need to say ‘Thanks’ when he is rightly returned. On the contrary, the whole process is traumatising and scarring, and particularly for first time parents it takes away something that can never be given back (both the Sunday Times pieces contain quotes from the parents spelling out the enduring impact on their relationships and family.

It is sadly inevitable that any system of child protection will sometimes do harm in trying to protect, and that sometimes it will turn out that intervention was unnecessary. That does not mean that we should shrug our shoulders or be surprised when those who are casualties of that inevitability are angry or distressed. This is not an omelette and families are not eggs. It does not mean we can tell ourselves ‘we were just doing our job’ and turn our backs to their complaints to avoid discomfort. To these families, what has happened is an injustice, notwithstanding the good faith and hard work of professionals, and notwithstanding that, formally, the ‘right’ outcome has been ultimately achieved through exoneration and return. The family’s lived experience will not have been be one of justice being done even if procedural fairness has been achieved.

Can we do better?

I’m sure I’m not the only lawyer who slips into using language that may inadvertently and thoughtlessly cause pain or offence, just as much as I’m sure it’s not just the one judge nor the single social worker referred to in the second Sunday Times article. These highlight a need for reflection on our collective responsibility as professionals to think hard about how we choose our language, to think about what presses buttons, and to think about what might insult or upset others.

I think, too, that what this language also masks is that we have become inured to the failures of a system which has normalised delay or resource-led decision making, and is – sometimes – too ready to default to the use of brutal solutions to the apparent risk. These include removal into foster care even where (as appears to be the case in the Sunday Times example) other options such as kinship care or supervision have not been fully explored. The fact that many of the parents who find themselves suspected of inflicting fractures or injuries, have in fact done something that they know or ought to know has caused harm, does not justify such cavalier and callous treatment of all parents. We have to protect children who might have been hurt, but we also have to remember at all times that these parents might well be completely innocent, that an apparent injury may be no more than a chimera on an x-ray plate or an injury caused by normal or perhaps inexperienced clumsy but non-malicious handling – and that this is all a terrible mistake. We need to remember the harm that removal itself can do and the indelible marks it can leave on families even once children are returned home. While we are protecting children from potentially harmful parents, we need also to be trying to protect the family from the worst consequences of what may ultimately turn out to be an unwarranted separation.

I would venture a guess that the judge’s ‘grateful’ was a reference to the fact that in that case the expert evidence that vindicated the parents came in far more quickly than it often does due to a chronic shortage of such experts – and to the fact that the parents were ‘only’ forced to endure being accused and separated for a couple of months when often it is far, far longer. Most suspected NAI cases (and most care cases generally) take many, many months more than that. In the webinar I attended recently on the topic of expert evidence, it was frankly acknowledged that the difficulties securing expert reports in suspected NAI cases may well mean a case comes out of the 26 weeks track, meaning cases will take longer than 6 months to complete.

Judges and practitioners are very used to seeing many months of delay in suspected NAI cases, waiting for expert evidence, for disclosure, or for a trial date – one’s perspective can become jaded when this is how it is in every case. How do we say to a parent, without diminishing the pain of a 2 month separation, that most parents must endure 6, or 12 months before a decision on whether they will get their children back at all? If we use a shortcut under pressure and don’t stop to think, we might say the 2 monthers are ‘lucky’.

The judge rightly acknowledged what the parents have been through :

My apologies from the Court for what they have been through. It is not the Court’s fault, it is not the Local Authority’s fault, and they should be grateful for the expertise that has come in the medical reports which have now been provided.

but the value of the apology was unintentionally undermined by him telling the parents how they should feel about the last awful 2 months.

To us ‘grateful’ and ‘lucky’ (whether about how often contact is facilitated or how long it takes to get an expert report) is really an acknowledgment that the system is broken. Perhaps it is our clumsy lawyer-speak backwards way of trying to tell parents that we know it’s all a bit sh*t but we can’t help it, and of trying to make ourselves feel a bit better about it because we’ve got them a comparatively good result. But for me, seeing those phrases in print, forced me to think about how they may be received, and the truth is that they jar, and they make me pull a face because they are (unintentionally) disrespectful, even if we in passing acknowledge the pain of separation. And for every one of those jarring phrases that has been transcribed and made public, there will no doubt be many more that were spoken, perhaps captured on a court recording or in a blue notebook or in the memory of someone who noticed it. Some of them will be my words. Some will be yours.

There are lots of other examples of loaded or lazy language that we use habitually, either for our own convenience or without thought. Use of the label ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ by professionals instead of names  might sometimes be an important acknowledgment of the legal status of a participant in a hearing or in respect of their child’s life, but may also sometimes feel reductive or diminishing – as Malvika and Maddie discuss in their recent podcast. More controversially perhaps, the use of phrase ‘failure to protect’ to describe the behaviour of victims of domestic abuse may feel oppressive.

Small things have impact and words have power. We can all always improve our use of language, including those who make our living from our skill with words. I am going to work harder at making changes on this front and invite my professional colleagues to do so too. I expect we will all slip up from time to time, but we can make a commitment to think about how our words may be felt and received.

Post Script :

I’ve used examples throughout this post of exonerated parents – but of course these are in many respects atypical. Many, perhaps most, cases are far more nuanced and messy – not only is there no such thing as a perfect parent, but almost every parent’s weaknesses and failings are offset by strengths, and many parents struggle to meet the needs of their children not through lack of effort but for reasons outside their control. In my experience, the unredeemable parent is almost as rare as the entirely vindicated one. Most parenting is on a spectrum of imperfection somewhere, mine included.


*disclosure : although I wasn’t involved during the care proceedings, I was subsequently briefly involved in the application for permission to publish details of that case, acting for the child. At that stage the judgment had not been transcribed or published.




5 thoughts on “Choose your words with care, listen as if with someone else’s ears…

  1. There is no perfect system when it comes to CPS. It all started with a good idea, but it changed over the years since everything had to be adapted to rules and regulations.

  2. Interesting Lucy and a brave attempt. But you’re highlighting the symptomolgy and missing the root cause of the problem. As my first degree is in English language I cannot myself stress enough how important language use/misue is, so I really appreciate what you are saying and how you are trying to highlight its significance.

    As people specialise in their fields, be it in social work or law etc, their focus narrows. This is great for a subject researcher. Not so much so for any practitioner. They risk missing seeing the bigger picture. They risk missing other details or information which matters. They become so ‘expert’ that they develop ‘tunnel vision’. And their language often reflects this.

    I am a very very atypical victim of Family Court. Through the private family law system being repeated misused to deliberately cause social services involvement, I have been a victim myself, then sadly mother to a second generation victim and a third generation victim. My personal experience of FC spans 50 years, and the injustices are as prevelant now as they were 50 years ago. Perhaps more so.

    However, I’m atypical for other reasons. As well as my first degree I have Diploma in Psychology, a PGCE and a smattering of other academic qualifications. I have worked as a nurse in general and mental health nursing. I have taught in secondary school and I have worked as frontline staff in the criminal justice system. So I have nursed, taught and protected children over my professional lifetime. My personal, academic and professional experiences give me very specific insights. Ones that transcend the boundaries of ‘specialisisms’.
    In terms of a FC outlook, I, my children and my grandchildren are ‘lucky’. We have survived the damage (but, not unscathed), which the process has done to us, and thrived inspite of it. None of which was down to being ‘lucky’. We carry our residual pains very well and use them to motivate us to achieve. Our achievements have come at considerable personal cost and effort. As individuals we live the legacy of being hypervigilent and still suffer nightmares years later. And we are ever mindful of those huge numbers of parents and children who have been traumatised by the UK child protection system, and who cannot speak out or move on from the effects of that. But I can speak out. I can be heard.
    But I digress, so back to the point I want to make. Two points actually. I learned from my language and psychology studies that our language use changes not only consciously at times, but always subconsciously and instinctively all the time, depending on who we are talking to. And that change is dependent on our perception of who we are talking to.
    So it is our PERCEPTION of the other person which is the driver of the language we use when speaking to them. And, into that personal perception comes personal attitudes about class, gender, ethnicity etc, etc. Even age. For example children are judged as not having a voice worth hearing in person in court because of assumptions made about them because of their age.

    Whilst perception is the driver of the language used in the child protection process and court, IMHO based on my personal experience and underpinned by my knowledge base and professional experience, it is POWER which is the main driver of these perceptions. And language is deliberately used which upholds, justifies and even manipulates that power which social workers, judges (and to some extent lawyers) hold over the lives of families.
    For example, why do social workers actively, willfully, and full knowingly lie in court or a welfare report, or choose to omit crucial information? Because they can. Because they hold the power. Because there are other agendas going on other than ‘the best interests of the child’.

    Yes we can address the way language is used and teach the professionals a bit about semantics as well – after all what does ‘the man saw the girl with binoculars’ really mean? But that is just addressing a symptom and removes the focus from what really needs to happen.

    We need first and foremost to create a level playing field and address the balance of power. And we can actually do that sooner rather than later without too much cost or delay. We all know changes need to be made, every recent review has higlighted this fact. Let’s stop delaying and start now with the basics.

    Where we start IMHO opinion is that
    1. We legislate to make the burden of proof in FC equitable with that of criminal courts.
    2. Social workers should be mandated to wear and activate body cameras in ALL interactions with any child or member of that child’s family or when speaking with any other professional involved in the care of that child, such as a doctor or teacher etc. With subsequent recordings being made available in court and to the family. (Despite intial police objections to wearing body cams, they found it actually helped them to do their job better.)
    3. All hand written notes made by any social worker or other ‘expert’ involved in the case to be retained until the child reaches the age of majority.
    4. All FC hearings should be video recorded and archived.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree with a lot of it. I’m sure there is some subconscious them and us going on.
      I think also that reflecting on and consciously changing our language can help reveal our own hidden prejudices and judgments – which is the first step to unpicking and changing them.

    • Dead right ME ME !
      If a judge brands a parent a child abuser let it be beyond reasonable doubt or “almost certain” if the standard has been recently changed. In too many cases the criminal court acquits but the family court condemns !
      Also “risk assessments” should be banned and future prophecies left to experts like Gypsy Rose Lee who has been doing it at the fairground all her life
      and racing tipsters who will certainly confirm that past actions and achievements do not denote the future with any degree of certainty !

  3. There are far too many cases of children being emotionally harmed by the authorities. Nothing is lucky or fortunate.
    When a child does die at the hands of an abuser they always state “lessons will be learned”… There is yet another enquiry and cover up.
    However, the authorities themselves are now abusing when they remove unnecessarily. Parents can commit suicide and children can die when given to carers who do abuse or kill. Custody given to the abusive parent.
    What then?
    There is no “oh sorry”
    Every second is abusive to the traumatised parent and child.
    Wrongful is appropriate wording.
    It is their behaviour that is inappropriate.
    Removing children saves their budgets..and pays their wages.
    They just hope parents put up and shut up….

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