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Denied Child Abuse

Using Attachment Assessments in cases of Denied Child Abuse

Attachment Assessments, such as the Adult Attachment Interview, Parent Development Interview, Meaning of the Child Interview, CARE-Index and child Story Stems are invaluable in assessing situations where abuse is found to have occurred, but either the perpetrator is not known, or the parents deny the courts findings. The approach is fully compatible with, and can support, what is usually known as the ‘Resolutions’ approach (Turnell and Essex 2006).  Conflict between parents and professionals about a particular construction of events, though sometimes necessary, can at other times be a distraction from understanding what the key issues are and how the child can be protected in the light of them.   The attachment assessments offer a way through this maze that is alive to genuine risk, but places the focus on the safety (or otherwise) of family relationships, rather than an often unhelpful discourse of individual fault finding and moral culpability, that too often becomes a stumbling block to both professionals and parents finding a properly child-centred way forward.

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Assessing risk and resilience where the history is disputed

Attachment procedures are initially classified blind; that is, analysed and interpreted on the basis of a video or interview transcript alone, without reference to the wider history of the case (which may be disputed or not known). They do not presume a particular construction of the history, but evaluate the interview transcript itself, the parent-child relationship observed in a video, or the child’s play. In cases where the history is known and accepted, they can be invaluable in making sense of it, but their evidence base is separate from the history of the case. In the interview-based assessments, the history may (and probably will) be part of the discussion, but the analysis of it is based upon the discourse used, and the coherence of the transcript itself; the interview transcript is analysed systematically using a manualised procedure – without requiring a prior knowledge of ‘what actually happened’. The classification does not reveal ‘what happened’ to either the child or the adult, but gives reliable information about the nature of an adult or child’s relationships or the interaction between them. For this reason, the attachment assessments help build an understanding of the risks and strengths in the family relationships that is independent of the history, both known and disputed.

Moving things forward

The importance of this in cases of denied child abuse, or where the perpetrator is not know is obvious. The assessments offer a way forward both for the family and professionals that does not require agreement as to what actually happened:

Firstly, the attser3achment assessments give an indication as to the safety of the family relationships and their ability to work constructively and openly enough with professionals that does not revolve solely upon the issue of whether the professional understanding of what happened is accepted. As Turnell and Essex (2006) point out, ‘denial’ is a complex concept that has different degrees, and denial operating in one area, does not necessarily mean denial in another.  It can be the result of many reasons that have little bearing on the risk to the child, and is often unhelpful in assessing a parent’s true potential to work with professionals to protect and safeguard the welfare of their child.  Constructs assessed by the attachment assessments, like ‘Reflective Functioning‘ (the ability to understand the behaviour of self and others in terms of underlying thoughts, feelings and intentions), ‘the Meaning of the Child‘ (the particular meaning the child has to the parent), ‘Reflective Integration‘ (the ability of adults to recognise difficulties and errors in their own thinking and relationships and openness to correcting these, or finding solutions), as well as the basic pattern of relationships observed, all give a much more in-depth and reliable guide to the parent’s ability and openness to change and to work with others cooperatively.

Secondly, the attachment assessments themselves form the basis of an agreed way forward that does not depend on a particular view of the history. The assessment itself can outline both strengths and risks in ways that does not require acceptance of the status of a perpetrator (with all the attendant risks to the parent that this might involve) but does require taking ownership of the need for and process of change.  Problems are seen primarily as occurring and originating within relationships, both in the current family and the parents’ family of origin and past adult relationships, which moves the discussion away from apportioning blame and individual culpability.   They allow for the seriousness of the issues to be acknowledged and incorporated into a plan that keeps the child safe, without the need for a parent to accept the truth or otherwise, of a particular version of events. This is not a ‘let off’, in that taking responsibility for and actually addressing emotional and relationship issues may be more difficult and challenging for a parent than simply saying ‘yes’ to the professional version of events. Instead, it directs attention to what is more critical to the future of both the child and the parents.

Thirdly, the attachment based interventions focus on the relationships themselves rather than disputed recent history. For example, Video Interaction Guidance is a strengths based intervention that teaches a parent to attend to what is working in the relationship and do more of it (and by the same token, less of what is concerning). Other interventions such as parent-infant work and reflective work will address problems more directly, but still focus on the issues in the parent-child relationship. This is not to say that acceptance of responsibility for abuse is irrelevant, and may be critically important in some cases (where some ‘repair’ or ‘reparation’ is needed in relation to harm done to the child), but simply acknowledges that there are therapeutic approaches which can impact on the situation and level of risk, but can operate, where appropriate, in situations where the history is not known or accepted.

We are not saying that it is possible to work with denied child abuse in all cases, simply that the attachment assessments (and interventions) offer valuable assistance in determining the level of risk in situations of this sort, and can offer a way forward that is not based upon a particular version of events. Dr Grey and Juliet Kesteven are fully experienced in conducting assessments of risk, parenting and family relationships for the family courts in these kinds of cases.