Social workers unlikely to act quickly on neglect cases

Research by Community Care and the NSPCC has revealed child neglect is not a priority for social workers, with 60% saying they feel pressure to downgrade cases

Photo: Rex Features (Posed by model)

Children suffering neglect are unlikely to receive timely help from social services, according to nearly 60% of social care professionals.

The majority (59%) of professionals surveyed by Community Care and the NSPCC said they believed it was ‘quite’ or ‘very’ unlikely that local social services would take swift action to protect children who were being neglected. For emotional abuse, this figure rose to 72%.

Pressure to downgrade cases

 

What is neglect?

The persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development.

It may involve a parent or carer failing to provide adequate food, shelter and clothing, failing to protect a child from physical harm or danger or the failure to ensure access to medical care or treatment.

It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.

Source: Department of Health

 

Three-fifths (60%) of the respondents said there was pressure to downgrade cases of neglect in their area – to ‘children in need’ rather than children in need of protection – while the same proportion said the burden of evidence to take neglect cases to court is too high.

Only 7% said they were confident that neglect cases that should progress to care proceedings or a supervision requirement application regularly do so.

Read one young man’s personal experience of neglect

The responses contrast starkly with other forms of child abuse.

Where physical abuse is concerned, virtually every respondent (96%) said it was quite or very likely that timely action would be taken in their area, while 94% said the same for cases of sexual abuse.

Yet despite this, 61% of social workers said neglect features in over half of their cases and 36% identified it as a primary concern in over half of their cases.

The findings – based on a survey of 242 social care professionals, including social workers, family support workers and children’s guardians – highlight the complexities of responding to child neglect and campaigners’ fears that the problem is not considered a priority.

Rising thresholds

Half of respondents believe thresholds for responding to neglect cases have risen over the past two years, while just under a third (32%) said thresholds have remained the same. Around a fifth (18%) said thresholds had fallen in their area.

Social workers said they often feel ‘powerless’ and admitted to lacking confidence when it comes to identifying and responding to child neglect. Almost 90% said social workers need more legal support when addressing neglect cases, compared with other forms of child abuse.

‘Wake-up call for the whole child protection system’

“Social workers are telling us of a hidden pool of neglect that is not being prioritised as a child protection concern,” said Dr Ruth Gardner, the NSPCC’s lead for neglect.

“This is very worrying but social workers are trying to do the right thing, so we want this to be a wake-up call for the whole child protection system.”

The NSPCC is now working closely with the legal and social work professions to look at how to improve the process of bringing cases to court. “And new NSPCC services are working directly with children at risk of neglect to find new ways of tackling the problem,” Gardner added.

Ruth Stark, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, said the findings reflect the reality of “social workers practising in hard-pressed local authorities where there have been cuts in resources to help protect children”.

“Neglect is a chronic condition where the collating of evidence is often complex, and has to demonstrate over a period of time that it is causing harm to the child. Thresholds for the evidence required to establish that compulsory intervention is required can be more prone to subjective interpretation and variation in court decisions.”

She urged employers to listen to the call from social workers for more legal advice about how best to collate and present evidence.

 

How to improve your practice on neglect 

Community Care Inform social work guides

The impact of prenatal neglect

The impact of neglect on the infant: 0 – two years

The impact of neglect on the pre-school child: Two to four years

Reference manual for social workers: Child neglect

Tips for social workers

Top tips from a child protection lawyer for social workers preparing neglect cases for court

Source: Inform, NSPCC

 

What do social workers think needs to change?

“There needs to be further training on the signs of neglect and the long-term damage. A national standardised tool to assess neglect should be introduced.”

“Courts need to see the impact neglect and emotional abuse have on children long-term, instead of concentrating on immediate risk. As research suggests, neglect and emotional abuse often have far worse outcomes. This needs to be reflected in decisions made by courts.”

“Emotional neglect requires a thorough assessment of children, with and without their parents. Social workers do not get sufficient time and good enough supervision to make the right decisions.”

“Social workers’ reports must be given more clout as they do more visits and assessments than guardians. More preventive work needs to be done, parenting classes and childcare should be part of the national curriculum. Neglect cases must be taken more seriously with respect for the long-term damage. That needs to be a factor when considering plans.”

“Courts are supportive of good evidence, but children’s hearings are reluctant to progress cases which criticise parents. We need better training for them to understand the impacts, to feel more confident in remembering the child is our priority and better support to help courts make more frequent serious, far-reaching decisions than perhaps was the case in 1968.”

Related articles

‘Neglect lays bare the worst aspects of being a social worker’

Guide to the risk assessment of child neglect

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