By Jim Barlow Professionals who intercede in suspected child-abuse cases should be accountable for their actions, says a family psychologist who also is calling for an examination of how intervention methods affect the children involved in alleged abuses. Frank Fincham, a UI psychology professor, found himself reviewing how America deals with child abuse following an Internet exchange on the Family Science Network, where a query was placed for published work on false-memory syndrome in child sexual-abuse cases. The request drew a variety of accusations against the querier. At the request of the journal Family Relations, Fincham teamed with Steven R.H. Beach of the University of Georgia and UI colleagues Thom Moore and Carol Diener to examine child-protection efforts used since the Child Abuse and Treatment Act was approved in 1973. Their findings are detailed in two papers in the journal's July issue. The journal also includes two articles that challenge their work and a third piece that supports and praises it. "The problem I see is a lack of judgment being used by professionals," Fincham said. "Too often they employ a one-size-fits-all kind of approach that automatically assumes that abuse has occurred." His team critiqued the language and assumptions of researchers and the tactics used by professionals in the field. Investigators seem to assume that the accused is guilty and sometimes use leading questions, harassment and even bribery to get children to confirm that abuse has occurred, he said. Such abusive tactics were made evident in an amicus brief, which Fincham signed, to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which threw out the conviction of day-care worker Kelly Michaels. For a new trial, the state must show that the evidence it obtained from the children against Michaels was not tainted. Fincham decries the inaccessibility of records of court cases and of agencies that provide child-protective services, because researchers are kept from documents that can allow them to examine the effect of intervention - usually protective custody - on children, regardless of whether abuse has occurred. He also criticizes the "awesome power invested in child-protective services workers" and argues that states should not grant them immunity that protects them from consequences of their actions. "I find it astounding that professionals who claim to be invested in the best interests of children have managed to do some of the things that they've done to children," he said. "The relative unwillingness to engage in any self-examination is a disservice to our children." His team calls for better validation methods. Child-abuse claims should be taken seriously but investigated without bias, he said. "Investigators should not simply seek to confirm that abuse occurred; they also should entertain other possibilities and seek information to disconfirm them." "It's time to ask if we are doing the best we can," Fincham said. "We need to be open to the possibility that some things we are doing may be harmful."