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Why language matters: why you should avoid labelling allegations as ‘malicious’

Date: Thursday, 03rd Aug 2023 | Category: General


As part of its Why Language Matters series, NSPCC Learning has published a blog post about the importance of avoiding recording allegations of safeguarding concerns as “malicious”, saying that several case reviews, including the recent national review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, have highlighted that such language can lead to professionals making assumptions that impact their response and impede the prevention of further harm to a child.


We’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve made assumptions or snap judgements based on what we already know. It’s an important way to navigate and manage the huge amounts of information we’re bombarded with every day.

But, when it comes to safeguarding concerns, it’s crucial to avoid making conclusions based on limited information. Part of this is thinking about the language we use. We need to talk and think about concerns in an unbiased way, based on facts and informed judgement.

Making assumptions

Several case reviews have highlighted issues around how the relationships between the people involved in allegations influenced professionals’ perceptions. Allegations were sometimes described as ‘malicious’ because of reported, or suspected, bad-feeling between the parties involved.

The most recent, high-profile example of this is the national review by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel into the murder of Star Hobson, summarised in our CASPAR briefing. 

Star Hobson died in Bradford aged 16 months on 22 September 2020. Her mother’s partner, Savannah Brockhill, was subsequently convicted of murder on 15 December 2021 and her mother, Frankie Smith, was convicted of causing or allowing her death.

The review found that professionals were too quick to accept Star’s mother’s and partner’s account that allegations of abuse made by the wider family were rooted in homophobia about their same sex relationship.

Other case reviews have identified issues around the professional response to allegations of abuse made by parents during acrimonious separations. One review highlighted the importance of being “open to considering what a parent is saying might be true (as opposed to viewing allegations of abuse or neglect as a feature of parental separation/conflict)”. Even when an allegation is motivated by malice or a desire to get someone else into trouble, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not true.

Impact on practice

The assumption that allegations are malicious can affect both the immediate and longer-term response to concerns.

Labelling allegations as ‘malicious’ can lead to concerns being overlooked or ignored. It distracts professional attention away from what might be happening, and results in a lack of balanced and critical assessment of risk.

It can also affect how professionals respond to further allegations of abuse. In the case of Star Hobson, the review found that once initial concerns were recorded as malicious, it gave validity to further claims by the couple that ongoing family members’ concerns were motivated by homophobia. The act of recording the initial allegation as ‘malicious’ prejudiced how professionals perceived further information provided by the family.

Gathering the facts

The national review concluded that, “no referral should be deemed malicious without a full and thorough multi-agency assessment including talking with the referrer, and agreement with the appropriate manager”.

Any allegation that someone has behaved in a way that has harmed, or may have harmed, a child must be taken seriously and dealt with sensitively and promptly. Professionals should thoroughly investigate the situation and maintain an unbiased approach. It’s important to follow local or organisational procedures to ensure each allegation is treated in a fair and transparent manner and that the child gets the protection and support that they need.

An important part of this unbiased approach is taking care over the language used to describe allegations. A label shouldn’t be applied to an allegation until the investigation is complete, to avoid influencing professionals’ perceptions of, and responses to, accounts of abuse.

Following a thorough investigation, professionals should be able to make an evidenced decision about whether or not an allegation can be substantiated.

Remaining child centred

The most important conclusion from investigations into allegations of abuse is whether there is evidence that the abuse took place. It’s this decision which determines whether a safeguarding or child protection response is needed.

If allegations are found to be false, it’s important to consider the wider context. Sharing information with other agencies helps to identify whether there is a pattern of false allegations being made against a family; and to consider the potential impact on the children involved. This should highlight any concerns which might require a safeguarding or criminal justice response.

Ultimately, labelling or accepting that an allegation is ‘malicious’ without properly assessing the situation increases the risk of overlooking a genuine report of abuse which could result in significant harm to the child. As the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel concluded in its review into the murder of Star Hobson, use of the term malicious allegation, “has many attendant risks and [we] would therefore discourage its usage as a professional conclusion”.

Key points to take away

  • Recording allegations as ‘malicious’ impacts the way professionals perceive and respond to concerns
  • Allegations of abuse should be fully investigated before a decision is made about their validity.
  • The focus of investigations should be on evidence of harm or risk of harm to a child and what is in the child’s best interests.
  • By sharing information with other agencies working with the family, it’s possible to identify whether there is a pattern of false allegations, which might require a safeguarding or criminal justice response.

Here in Staffordshire, local Child Safeguarding Practice Reviews have demonstrated the need for everyone to remain professionally curious when working with children and families. Deception and accepting information as malicious, without critical thinking or seeking further information is evident and currently being addressed through the sharing of learning from those reviews across the childrens workforce.

For more information about Child Safeguarding Practice Reviews or learning from reviews, please contact Staffordshire Safeguarding Children Board