If you thought a child was suffering neglect you’d want someone to step in and put a stop to it. Perhaps you’ve been worried about a child and called the NSPCC or your local social services about it. And once a child is known to the authorities you would expect that they are being protected.
However, a survey of social workers published in Community Care this week, in partnership with the NSPCC, reveals that just one in 10 were confident that children suffering neglect were being properly protected. Contrast this to physical or sexual abuse, where virtually every respondent in the survey (nine in 10) said it was likely that action would be taken.
You are probably asking why – how can this be happening? And we are very concerned about this as well. But I want to be clear that this is not about criticising social workers. We know that the vast majority are working tirelessly to keep children safe from harm.
I believe this is a sign that there is a hidden pool of neglect that is not being prioritised as a child protection concern and this should be a wake up call for the whole child protection system.
Social workers are telling us that when it comes to child neglect at every stage, from identifying children suffering neglect, to getting help to families, to making a legal case for taking children into care when necessary, they face bottlenecks and obstacles to taking effective action.
So why is neglect such an issue for social workers and what can we do about it?
Neglect can be unique in terms of child abuse because it often relies on proving inaction such as not feeding a child adequately and can require evidence of this over a long period of time. Whereas sexual abuse or physical abuse may require evidence of just one incident such as a broken bone or severe bruising, that can be used to take urgent, decisive action.
I also recognise that every local authority is under increasing financial pressure and increasing demands on their services.
We learned this week that nearly 30,000 children were taken into care last year, 1,300 more children compared with the previous year. A total of 67,050 youngsters were being looked after by social services departments in England, according to the Department for Education. That’s an increase of 13% compared with March 2008, when social workers started recommending more children be taken into care following the death of Peter Connelly.
Half of respondents in our survey said they believed thresholds for responding to neglect cases have risen over the past two years – meaning that fewer children would meet the criteria for being placed on the child protection register.
These are big numbers and they give some idea of the mountain social workers have to climb. But let’s not forget that behind every number is a child. And children should not pay the price of budget cuts.
The NSPCC helpline has seen a surge in calls this year - with over 12,000 contacts about neglect from the public in the last year – the biggest number of reports about neglect yet recorded by the charity’s helpline. The calls reveal the desperate suffering of neglected children. One caller was worried about a mother who was always drunk, leaving no-one to look after her child. Another caller was concerned about a baby who wasn’t fed properly and left in dirty nappies all day.
In the long term there is evidence that neglect leaves children scarred for life, unable to socialise, play and fulfill their potential at school. It can go on to impact on their relationships as adults and their own parenting skills and ability to bond with their own children – potentially continuing the cycle of harm. In the most serious cases, like that of Khyra Ishaq in 2008, neglect can result in the death of a child.
There are no silver bullets to tackling neglect but our survey has given us an insight into what social workers need and we intend to act on this. For example nearly all the social workers who took our survey (90%) said they needed more legal support when addressing neglect cases, compared with other forms of child abuse.
In light of the findings the NSPCC is now working closely with the legal and social work professions to look at how we can improve the process of bringing cases to the family courts to protect more children. And new NSPCC services are working directly with children at risk of neglect to find new ways of tackling the problem.