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'Protect' teacher-witnesses

The trauma of an abuse case affects more than the child, reports Frances Rafferty

Teachers need greater protection when giving evidence in child abuse cases, according to a union leader who claims her members are increasingly becoming victims of aggressive defence lawyers.

Kay Driver, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said distressed teachers have been ringing the union's problems hotline.

Often deputy heads who have responsibilities in this area, they are being called by defence lawyers trying to discredit a child's evidence, she said.

"When a teacher reports what a child has told them, they have no idea that it may end up with them being dragged through the court," she said.

"Teachers are often the person children confide in. There are set local authority procedures for reporting suspected abuse, and when teachers pass on such information to social services or the police, they should be allowed do so without prejudice."

Michele Elliott, director of Kidscape, a child protection charity, gets calls most weeks from teachers who have given evidence in court and sometimes find themselves threatened by the accused's friends and family.

She said: "We have gone too far down the line for teachers to be awarded a confidentiality clause. But at the moment they are in the frontline and being shot at from all sides."

She said in some cases lawyers have accused teachers of putting ideas into children's heads, and others have been asked if they have been abused themselves. Kidscape's own material - which alerts children to the dangers of abuse - has been cited by defences as suggestive.

"When you get involved in a case you are going to make enemies," said Ms Elliott. "Teachers need training to act as witnesses in such cases, and need support afterwards. The problem is that teachers have lost the status they once had. Their word no longer has an autmomatic credibility and if you can undermine the adult's testimony, you can undermine the child's."

Each local authority is expected to set up a child protection committee, which includes representatives from social services, the probation service and police, to deal with accusations of abuse. A study in the United States found that a quarter of cases of abuse were discovered at schools.

Gareth James, head of professional advice at the National Association of Head Teachers, said child custody cases represent another legal minefield for teachers.

He said: "We have had cases where our members have been called upon to act as witnesses when parents are battling over custody of a child. It can be very distressing to be caught up in a family dispute when all they want to do is try to treat their pupil as fairly as possible."

Richard Margrave, director of communications for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Teachers are getting increasingly tired of picking up the problems of society and these demands just add to the stresses and workload of their job."

Alan Levy QC, a child law specialist, said teachers must expect to give evidence, but should be given the appropriate training.

Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "I have sympathy for teachers. Local authorities should make sure there is more liaison with social services departments which have experience in this area. Every headteacher should be given a number they can ring."

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