Research into practice

Although much research and practice is concerned with identifying and preventing child abuse, relatively little is known about the abuse of disabled children. This is despite evidence that disabled children are three to four times more likely to be abused than non-disabled children.1

The figure is even more alarming when different types of disability are considered. For example, a study of deaf children found that 50 per cent of those attending residential schools reported having been sexually abused.2 Children with learning difficulties are also vulnerable, with one study putting the rate of reported abuse within this group at more than three times higher than within the general population.3

All this data derives from the US, but research at Nottingham University4 shows there is little information about the abuse of disabled children in the UK, not least because government child protection figures do not contain data on whether or not an abused child has a disability. The Nottingham study found that disabled children who are conferenced for abuse are less likely to be placed on the child protection register than non-disabled children. It also noted a tendency not to see the abuse of disabled children.

The study made several recommendations (see below).

Another UK study, carried out by children’s charity the NSPCC, and focusing on how to safeguard disabled children in residential settings, reiterates the need for more information and better training.5

This study describes assumptions about disabled people. One such assumption is that their “special status” protects them from abuse. But in reality, US research shows that disabled children are more, not less, likely to be victims of abuse, with those in residential settings at the greatest risk of all.

The NSPCC study also made several recommendations for good practice (see below).

The message is clear: better information and training are crucial to protect disabled children from abuse. This finds common cause with the Victoria Climbie Report, which highlights more comprehensive training for staff working in the main agencies, and more detailed and consistent information about all children suspected of being at risk of abuse.

1 P M Sullivan, J F Knutson, “Maltreatment and disabilities: a population-based epidemiological study”, Child Abuse and Neglect (24) 10, 2000

2 P M Sullivan et al, “Sexual abuse of deaf youth”, American Annals of the Deaf (3), 1987

3 L E Frisch, F A Rhoads, “Child abuse and neglect in children referred for learning evaluation”, Journal of Learning Disabilities (15) 10, 1982

4 P Cooke, P J Standen, “Abuse and disabled children: hidden needs…?”, Child Abuse Review (11), 2002. For more information contact Pamela Cooke at the Anne Craft Trust, Centre for Social Work, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, tel: 0115 951 9401 or e-mail:

5 A Paul, P Cawson, “Safeguarding disabled children in residential settings”, Child Abuse Review (11), 2002

Colette Dartford is research consultant, Institute of Public Care, Oxford Brookes University. Contact e-mail:

Nottingham University study recommendations

  • Clearer definitions of disability and better collection of data.
  • Recording whether a child being investigated for abuse has a disability.
  • Training on issues surrounding the abuse of disabled children, included at various stages of social work qualification and for health workers, teachers and police.
  • Training in how to communicate effectively with disabled children.
  • Clearly defined protocols between child protection teams and child disability teams.

NSPCC study recommendations

  • Suitably trained staff with supervision and accountability.
  • Ongoing communication development.
  • Consultation with children and provision of choice.
  • Specific guidelines for behaviour management.
  • Comprehensive integrated education and social care plans.

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