Low-level child neglect is a high-stakes issue

By Emily Buchanan

Friday 25 July 2014

A recent Action for Children report highlighted that neglect is the most common form of child abuse in the UK today.

Up to one in 10 children across the UK suffers from neglect; it is the most frequent reason for a child protection referral, and it features in 60 per cent of serious case reviews into the death or serious injury of a child. So, how is our research seeking to support those tirelessly campaigning to end child neglect?

NFER and Research in Practice are working with a group of ambitious and innovative local authorities. Each area is locally exploring the issue of child neglect, and looking to find effective and sustainable solutions at the grass roots. Child protection procedures deal with cases of chronic neglect (as long as they reach a certain threshold), but support for those experiencing ‘lower-level’ neglect is patchier. Social care teams are tackling increasing numbers of referrals, whilst at the same time facing cut backs. Indeed, in one study, 65 per cent of social workers said cuts impeded their ability to intervene in cases of child neglect. The authorities engaged in the Local Authorities Research Consortium (LARC) suggest that we need to explore the resources and expertise of the community, family networks and frontline practitioners as a cost-effective way to help identify and support families showing early signs of neglect.

We’re asking young people, parents, community representatives and practitioners in schools, health and early years settings what they think neglect is – when would they be concerned about a child or a friend? When and how might they decide to act on their concerns? Recent media attention has been paid to the new ‘Cinderella law’, calling for emotional neglect to be criminalised. This is a significant development, and may be helpful in raising awareness of the serious and lasting damage of emotional neglect, but do we know how to recognise it? Or what to do about it?

At an Action for Children breakfast briefing, the Local Government Association spoke for many in asking: “Why don’t we as teachers, neighbours or professionals in our own areas report our concerns earlier? Everyone in the community needs to play their part – dog wardens, health visitors, GPs and school support staff.”

Resources to support those helping neglected children are fast developing. We’re looking to see how we can plug some gaps by promoting the role of community members/volunteers and local groups (such as playgroups, food banks and ‘community champion’ models) that are already doing a great job of picking up on signs of neglect, and providing support to families in need. With money in increasingly short supply, these community resources could provide the low-cost early intervention that is needed.

We must develop and promote a shared understanding of neglect. We must ensure that families are getting the support that they want and need. We must provide clear pathways for supporting families or referring concerns. If we don’t work towards these, we will continue to see cases of neglect escalate as children in real need of help go unnoticed.

Of real concern to me, is the cumulative effect of long-term neglect continuing to impair the lives of thousands of children and young people, seriously limiting their chances of leading happy and well adjusted adult lives. We must recognise that we are all responsible for knowing the signs of children at risk of or suffering from neglect, and we need to know what to do about it.

If we as community members, neighbours, professionals in schools and other services don’t (or won’t) pick up on these early signs, who will?