Child neglect: the Staffordshire approach

Our awareness of the harm that neglect does to children is greater than ever and, at last, ambitious action is being taken. Greg Williams and Vonni Gordon explain how Staffordshire is investing in support for parenting

Of the endless challenges presented by safeguarding responsibilities, none is quite so enduring as that of tackling child neglect. It seems etched indelibly in the history of childhood itself, materialising in different and cunning guises – and with such damaging effects.

Neglect lingers often surreptitiously – and more extensively than sexual abuse – throughout local communities. In those environments regarded as “high in criticism, low in warmth”, little appears to have changed for countless children for whom this is harsh reality.(1)

As the government struggles to deliver its promises in reducing child poverty it clings to optimistic outcomes for all children under the banner of Every Child Matters.

While tax credits and further reforms contained in the Childcare Bill may be steps in the right direction, they are still pre-occupied with working parents and arguably to the exclusion of families who may be much harder to reach.

It is hard to imagine the emptiness pervading the lives of those children for whom each day is filled with such uncertainty; from never being asked what sort of day you have had at school; or from not really being much cared about at all.

Its impact is manifest in children in very different ways. It is the consequential difficulties they then experience, that are so authoritatively perceived and described by others, leading ironically and incrementally to other “labels” being applied, often in the context of that experience. From developmental delay to disaffected pupil, often a truant, sometimes transgressing via deviant behaviour and criminality, whereby the sanction of an antisocial behaviour order may only then be exceeded by custody.

How perverse it is that criminality and anti-social behaviour are more likely to grab the headlines than the originating “persistent failure to meet (that) child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs”. This is how Working Together continues to categorise child neglect.(2) While few cases of such abject failing are likely to be published nationally, such as Paul in Islington(3) and Family W in Sheffield,(4) most local authorities will inevitably have their own infamous examples.

Staffordshire is no exception. This authority has recently emerged from the painful self-scrutiny of yet another serious case review, examining the circumstances in which a young person had endured a childhood filled with the damaging effects of palpable neglect. This had remarkably been sustained under the blinding glare of all agencies funded by the public purse whose job it had been to protect her.

It was yet another powerful reminder of how the fanciful distraction of a diagnostic label can deflect professional focus away from the harsh realities of what is actually happening to a child.

Dusting itself down from this salutary experience, the now defunct area child protection committee (ACPC) began to seriously contemplate the wider implications. Publishing the review findings, by reinforcing strongly that tackling serious neglect is unavoidably a child protection concern (or indeed a safeguarding from maltreatment priority), caused the ACPC to effectively wake up to the reality that this represents only one extreme of the better outcomes continuum under Every Child Matters.

It also coincided with the ACPC recognising – very much in accord with trends in many other local authorities – that half of the 400 children in its area whose names were then on the child protection register, had reached that threshold of concern because of perceived neglect.

That chillingly represents 200 children living in this relatively rural shire county who are found to be at risk of such “persistent failure” as that described in Working Together.

While these may be 200 unique individuals, they share common prospects associated with poor outcomes, linked inextricably to failings not in themselves but rather in the capacity of their carers.

In those respects, and encouragingly however, the social and political climate has never been better for propagating and nurturing better understanding of the challenges of parenthood and in enhancing parenting skills.

Political recognition is pledging support and investment in a range of cross-government initiatives throughout the social spectrum. It recognises the importance of the carrot as well as the stick – in harking back to concerns about youth crime and antisocial behaviour – in funding a plethora of family support programmes that are not necessarily confined to parenting in the early years.

It is of course a tall order, and one that has to recognise the diversity of parenting styles and family norms. Well-established barriers to effective parenting – substance misuse and family violence – remain prominent reference points in seeking better outcomes for children and in reaching out to others who might benefit from interagency collaboration.

Young parents deserve particular attention, as do care leavers, whose “accelerated transitions to adulthood and lack of guaranteed assistance” may expose their corresponding lack of positive family experiences.(5)

In Staffordshire, the emerging safeguarding children board has now taken over the ACPC’s cause in making child neglect a key priority. Its early ambitions, justifying at least a fleeting mention in the children and young persons’ plan, have the backing of the similarly embryonic children’s trust board in turning well-meaning aspirations into something of a reality.

Through each of these forums collaborative opportunities exist for early intervention, in seizing a real safeguarding opportunity of tackling child neglect before maltreatment takes hold.

These opportunities coincide with the five-year strategy for children and learners which sees the roll-out of 32 children’s centres and the creation of extended schools.

This not only brings resources within pram-pushing proximity of local communities, but creates family learning opportunities beyond basic literacy and numeracy. By building upon parallel initiatives created by the youth offending service, a whole-systems approach becomes achievable in creating “the experience of an enduring and supportive relationship in which the child feels valued” across the whole range of individual work settings.(6)

Negotiations are as yet at an early stage in locating this, working within a nationally-acclaimed research proposal by the University of East Anglia, in partnership with the NSPCC. Local practitioners should thereby have opportunities of contributing to fieldwork upon which the researchers will be evaluating what actually works best in enhancing parenting capacity.

Devising a framework for tackling neglect, with performance indicators and outcome measures may be an ambitious enterprise. Doing nothing about child neglect is not a realistic option, certainly if there is real purpose behind the change agenda under Every Child Matters.

Greg Williams is a principal child care manager who has been co-ordinating Staffordshire’s child protection arrangements for the last 14 years. He is currently managing the safeguarding children board. Vonni Gordon was formerly a social worker for disabled children in Kent. Her current post is driving forward Staffordshire’s safeguarding priorities.

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The corrosive effects of chronic neglect continue to blight the lives of many children. This commentary highlights how one authority is beginning to generate more momentum in highlighting the continuous nature of this challenge and in seeking more effective ways of supporting families.

(1) Department of Health, Messages from Research, The Stationery Office, 1995.
(2) Department for Education and Skills, Working Together to Safeguard Children, The Stationery Office, 2006.
(3) Islington Area Child Protection Committee, Paul. Death Through Neglect, The Bridge Child Care Consultancy, 1995.
(4) Sheffield Area Child Protection Committee, Cantrill Report, 2005
(5) P Mendes, B Moslehuddin, “From dependence to interdependence: towards better outcomes for young people leaving state care”, Child Abuse Review Vol 15, No. 2, 2006.
(6) D Turney, K Tanner, “Understanding and working with neglect”, Research and Practice Briefing Children and Families 10, DfES, 2005.

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