Press Release - 1st October 2004

Health visitors are now the health police - and the government's campaign to stop aggression against NHS staff is backfiring, says maternity pressure group

The witch hunt for potentially abusive parents is now dominating and distorting supportive services for parents, says maternity pressure group.

Health visitors, who used to take over where maternity care left off, are now visiting women if possible before the baby comes, and their first job is to question mothers to assess them to see how great a risk they may be to their babies. They are doing this secretly, without consent, and without telling mothers the real reason; they will say that it is to see if they will need extra help. What it usually meant is extra surveillance - and a risk-rating which will stay for ever on the child's and mother's record. They ask questions about past episodes of mental illness, how she got on with her own mother, domestic violence, and so on. This means that any subsequent accident or illness in the child may be seen as suspicious in mothers who get a high rating.

"This fits in with the whole pattern we are now seeing in child care" says Beverley Beech, Chair of AIMS, "Surveillance and suspecting parents - mostly mothers - has taken over from support which many first-time mothers need."

"The fact that health visitors have given in so easily to this, and are carrying out this secret surveillance makes us question what has happened to the ethics of the nursing profession."

Research has shown that the vast majority of parents labelled as high risk by this system will never abuse their children - and some parents labelled as low risk will.

There are parents who need more support, but all our evidence suggests that the real practical support isolated parents need is not there. Increasingly, health visitors simply report anyone with problems to social services - who also increasingly get care orders rather than providing real support. "And real support is what parents find supportive - not simply what a social worker thinks they should have. Increasingly we find what gets good marks from health visitors and social workers is passive compliance. But for someone coping as a single parent, or in difficult circumstances, a passive compliant parent may not be the best protection for children".

Parents are not obliged to use health visitors. They are entitled to refuse. But some parents who exercised their right to refuse were reported to social services as a potential risk to their children. "The whole of child care is becoming much more authoritarian in approach - and the sad result is that professionals are much less trusted." say Beverley Beech, and Jean Robinson, AIMS Hon. Research Officer.

Recent research has shown that mothers lie when they are asked questions about postnatal depression: they are afraid to tell the truth in case they are reported to social services and their babies are taken. So they are not getting help. (research details available from AIMS)

How many patients are aggressive?

We would deplore aggression against NHS staff. But we are getting an increasing number of reports from parents that they were falsely accused of aggressive behaviour if health visitors, receptionists, or other staff did not like them, or if they questioned proposed treatment or advice in any way, and above all if they made a complaint. And such "aggression" labelling becomes part of the pattern of seeing their child as at risk. In some cases we suspect it is part of the creating workup they do when they want to take babies.

Complaints AIMS receives about health visitors are increasing, particularly about their lack of knowledge and support on breast feeding, which leads to many mothers giving up unnecessarily. Yet breast milk is one of the best protections for infant and long-term health a child can have. Mothers complain that when any problem arises health visitors pressure them to put the baby on the bottle - so that they can see satisfactory weight gain on the official chart. In fact health visitors themselves are creating child health problems.

Health visitors' training has been reduced from a year to 36 weeks.

See also:

AIMS Journal 2004 Vol 16 No 3 - Health Visitors or Health Police?

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