Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Rhetoric and the Violation of Human Rights in Child Protection Proceedings: The Case of P,c&s vs United Kingdom

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Rhetoric and the Violation of Human Rights in Child Protection Proceedings: The Case of P,c&s vs United Kingdom

Article excerpt


In March 2002, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) heard the case of P,C&S vs. United Kingdom in which the parents of a child, S, sought to establish that the domestic proceedings that had resulted in the adoption of their child had violated their human rights. In July 2002, the ECHR ruled that the domestic proceedings had indeed violated the human rights of both the parents and the child. In this paper, I seek to explain how the domestic proceedings led to the violation of human rights. It is my argument that a partial answer to this question can be found in the interplay between a) the actors that functioned to establish, maintain and stabilize the trajectory of the narrative of dangerousness, and b) the rhetorics involved in child protection and Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSbP). While this is a single case study analysis, I suggest that the features of the case of P,C&S1 are not uncommon in cases of alleged MSbP abuse and may be at work in other cases of alleged abuse. A reflexive, critical and narrative approach in cases of alleged child abuse may protect families from professional failings and prevent future violations of human rights.

Key Words: Child protection, human rights, rhetoric, actor-network theory, Munchausen syndrome by proxy, narrative analysis


P,C&S raises significant questions about the child protection system and Family Court proceedings in the UK. In particular it suggests that taken for granted assumptions and rhetorics within the two systems may contribute to the violation of human rights. The violation of human rights is thus not necessarily the result of professional ignorance, mistakes, failings of understanding or intention but the outworkings of inherent potentialities within the system. These potentialities, however, are not peculiar to the UK child protection and legal systems: e.g. the rhetoric surrounding MSbP and the official (if not necessarily publicly shared) view of professionals as benevolent and benign are international phenomena. I shall explore, through a single case analysis, how a narrative trajectory (targeted toward adoption) was established, maintained and stabilized in the face of potential disruptions through assemblies of actors and narrative techniques.

Before proceeding to the main argument of the paper, however, it is necessary to make some general points regarding rhetoric and narrative trajectories and present brief details of the case.

A Note on Rhetoric

While the term rhetoric is usually narrowly associated with the use of language, here I use it in the sense of a persuasive discourse that sets the backdrop and frames the questions and agendas within which any debate takes place. In so doing, certain matters are legitimized and others ruled as inappropriate. In the case of P.C&S four such rhetorics can be discerned.

First, the rhetoric of the nature of child protection investigations and proceedings which presents such investigations and proceedings as inquisitorial (as opposed to adversarial) and impartial (as opposed to selective). As such proceedings are rooted in the Rationalist Model of Adjudication as described by Twining (1990: 73):

. . . the careful and rational weighing of evidence which is both relevant and reliable, presented in a form designed to bring out the truth and discover untruth, to supposedly competent and impartial decision makers, with adequate safeguards against corruption and mistake and adequate provision for review and appeal.

Second, the rhetoric of the 'psy complex' (see Ingleby 1985) presents professions as benevolent and benign. In this rhetoric the intentions of professionals are assumed to be good and the outworkings of their evaluations and actions free from personal interest, feeling or bias. Furthermore, the work and evidence of professionals is, by default, accepted as reliable and trustworthy. Third, the rhetoric of the child protection system is that the welfare of the child is paramount in any investigation and subsequent proceedings (a principle established in law under the Children Act 1989) and that these best interests are to be upheld in the face of competing claims. …

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