Practice Panel: are the children at risk of neglect and emotional abuse?

Experts offer advice on how to help young children suffering the fall-out from their parents' violent rows and neglect

Experts offer advice on how to help young children suffering the fall-out from their parents’ violent rows and neglect


The NSPCC Helpline received a call from a member of the public worried about a neighbour, Sam*, 28, and the safety of her three children.

The caller said he was concerned about the level of shouting and arguing he heard regularly during the week, usually when Sam was visited by her ex-partner. The children’s father also often shouted and swore at the children, a two-year-old girl and two boys aged four and six.

The Helpline caller said he had often seen the children outside unsupervised for long periods, sometimes late into the evening. The the six-year-old boy did not attend school regularly. The Helpline caller had spoken to a support teacher about his concerns and was told they would be passed on to the headteacher. The caller has not heard anything back and there have been further incidents.


The relationship between Sam and her ex-partner is volatile and their frequent arguments are potentially upsetting for the children. They may be witnessing domestic violence. Sam’s life appears chaotic and the children are showing signs of neglect.

The caller said he had challenged Sam about leaving the children out at night on their own but this had been met with an abusive response. He was worried about raising his concern again for fear of retaliation from Sam’s ex-partner.

The police have previously been called to the property during a domestic incident, but no further action appeared to have been taken.

The social work practitioner’s view: Shelley Vidal, project worker, Action for Children, Vale Family Support Service, Wales

here are two main issues Action for Children’s Vale Family Support Service would address with this family. Firstly the domestic abuse. It should be a priority to assess the mother’s capacity to prioritise and protect the children, taking into account the history of abuse and which factors could be conducive to emotional abuse.

Secondly, we would need to assess the child neglect. We would want to establish if it is the result of a cycle of generational neglect and abuse of the parents themselves. Neglect can also be caused by a lack of control and support networks.

As pioneers of family intervention services, Action for Children has worked successfully with many families like this, struggling with multiple issues, by offering intensive support.

The starting point would be a meeting of professionals from health, education, police and social services, to explore the issues faced by the family. It is important that communication links between professionals are kept open and regular reviews are held to monitor progress.

Once a detailed course of action is identified, a key worker will build a relationship with the family. Attention would be paid towards building confidence, self-esteem and addressing issues of power and control, and parenting skills. This could be done through one-to-one sessions with key members of the family as well as other activities such as parenting classes. Sessions with local support agencies such as Women’s Aid are also useful in providing the support needed to meet progress milestones.

If the issues are not addressed now a pattern of neglect could continue which may result in the children being taken into care. At Action for Children, intensive family support offered to families like these is done with an emphasis on child protection and supporting the family network in the best interest of the child.

The expert view: Patrick Ayre, senior social work lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire

spend a good deal of my time writing expert witness reports in cases where local authorities are being sued for negligence by children they have failed to protect. A significant proportion of these start off with situations very similar to this. From this distinctive perspective, a number of key issues present themselves.

First, social care agencies have proven notoriously bad at paying sufficient attention to referrals from neighbours, friends and family. Regrettably, we seem to operate an unspoken “hierarchy of respect” in such matters – those who know the children least well (such as duty social workers, consultant child psychiatrists and the like) have most influence, while those who know them best (such as neighbours, family, nursery staff and teachers) have least.

Secondly, we should regard ourselves as very lucky we are receiving this referral while two of the children are relatively young. In cases of neglect and emotional abuse, the harm done is fundamental and cumulative.

Research into child development tells us that if we wait until neglected children show signs of their abusive experiences, it will usually be too late to fully put things right.

Unlike other animals, very little of the functioning of our brains is hardwired at birth. Rather, we become who we are by the use of neural pathways – those that are heavily used become stronger, those which are not used weaken and disappear.

There is a great spurt in the laying down of new pathways in the first three years, but by the age of six, these have been pared down drastically based on our experiences to date.

This pattern of development essentially defines our window of opportunity for effective intervention. So assessment and, if justified, proactive preventive intervention are essential in this case.

The user view: Sally* (name has been changed), a Women’s Aid service user

It may seem incomprehensible that Sam is rejecting the caller’s concern for the welfare of her children but try to understand how she may be feeling. Whether or not the incidents involve physical violence, Sam and the children are suffering abuse and the ex clearly continues to have a lot of control over the family.

I remember how humiliated I felt knowing that my neighbours could hear the words used against me in my own home. Sam’s abusive reaction to her neighbour doesn’t mean she isn’t desperate and helpless. Her reaction may stem from feelings of shame that he knows of what she has “allowed to happen”. She may also be afraid that if her ex thinks she has been confiding in her neighbour he will be furious and the abuse will escalate. She may even feel that the children are safer outside of the house when this is happening.

In a situation like this it is likely that Sam’s judgement is clouded and that she will be highly preoccupied with trying to pacify her ex-partner. Her actions may be revolving around this.

Clearly, if three children of such a young age are safer in the street than in their own home then something is very wrong. Sam and her children need help but are not in a position to request it. By approaching either Sam or her ex partner the caller may put himself at risk and he may inadvertently make things worse for Sam and the children in the short term. He has done the right thing contacting the school as they, or social workers, are much better placed to take this forward.

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Guide to assessing the emotional harm experienced by children exposed to domestic violence from a domestically violent parent/carer

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