OPINION: Our remit is to enable choice based on fact

Geraldine Peacock, a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner

One of the most difficult tasks facing voluntary organisations working with vulnerable clients is finding the best care and treatment options while protecting service users against quackery and exploitation.

So often with conditions like autism, cerebral palsy, learning disability or mental heath problems, the emotional drive to find a cure is stronger than logic. People regularly look to charities for the answer.

Charities, in turn, have to take a balanced approach to risk and assess how to combine research and information with meeting the emotional and support needs of clients - which is not easy.

This week my partner returned from the US with a report taken from the New York Times. It contained a shocking tale of an eight-year-old boy with autism who died of asphyxiation while being held down during a prayer service conducted by a faith healer "to drive the demons from him". Legal wrangles have followed this tragic death as lawyers argue about whether the healer could be charged with second-degree murder or child abuse if, in his mind, he was trying to help the child at the family's request.

In this country, especially in the field of learning disability and mental health, similar issues prevail. With complex conditions, where the cause is not yet fully understood, there is no one thing that works - there is no magic answer. Charities have to moderate between the passion of clients and carers, and the risks (and benefits) of new, but unproven therapies. They have to balance research, caution and the law by investigating new approaches in a way that is both thorough and caring.

However, this takes time. And parents, motivated by love, desperation and tales of miracle cures, are often prepared to try anything. By sounding a note of caution, charities might then be seen as the enemy.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma, but honesty, prompt action, good communication and sound ethics apply. When new approaches arise, it is best to find out as much as possible, as soon as possible. Families can then make informed choices about the ethical considerations and risks involved for their children. It is often not comfortable or easy, but surely this is the essential role and responsibility of a charity - to support families by enabling them to make informed choices.

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