IPT Book Reviews

Title: Child Abuse Errors: When Good Intentions Go Wrong
Author: Dennis Howitt
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, 1993

Rutgers University Press
Rutgers University
109 Church Street
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
(800) 446-9323
$40.00 (c) $15.00 (p)

This 226-page book is based on the reports of 17 British families erroneously accused of child abuse and the conclusions of several articles from the British Association of Social Workers. Howitt takes us on a tour of an underworld of incompetence where injustice after injustice is dumped on powerless families. The book was prompted by the mistakes made by child protection investigations, and it highlights the perils of ideology. Throughout, Howitt stresses the need to consider error, along with an effective feedback system, as an important feature of child protection work. Three of the 17 cases were provided by PAIN (Parents Against Injustice), the British equivalent of the American VOCAL.

The first chapter deals with the long history of professional error in child abuse work, where ideology substitutes for fact, even fooling some judges. Vague definitions of "abuse," "family" (single mothers or fathers with sole custody are not included), "incest," and "incest survivor" make definitions from 50 different states problematical and confusing. Chapter three, called "Pseudo-Science," discusses the anti-sexuality in America and how we have confused human sexual expression with negative power. The idea of a female abuser (most abusers are women according to Howitt) does not give comfort to feminists.

Two chapters detail some of the specific issues in physical abuse allegations (i.e., brittle bones disease) and in sexual abuse. Following this, the author discusses three main defensive strategies that may be employed by staff workers in child protection — positive defenses (following the agency manual in rigid steps), negative defenses (take no risks), and suppressing information (cover up errors in records).

The book closes with a good list of references and a useful name index and subject index. Howitt's philosophy can perhaps be summed up in his last sentence: "Moral outrage posing as justification for social policy is a costly luxury" (p. 199). This book should be read by all child welfare agency staff and social work students.

Reviewed by LeRoy G. Schultz, Professor Emeritus of Social Work, West Virginia University.

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