The emphasis on meeting the recommendations of the second Laming report is pushing the needs of some groups of vulnerable young people down the agenda, writes Molly Garboden
The publication of the second Laming report led to a raft of new priorities for councils and organisations involved in children’s safeguarding. But it is now claimed that the understandable clamour to prevent another Baby P case has inadvertently resulted in other groups of vulnerable children slipping down the priority list.
According to Action for Children, services for children who have been sexually abused, teenagers at risk of sexual exploitation, children of mentally ill parents and disabled children have become more elusive.
Shaun Kelly, the charity’s head of safeguarding, says designing a system to avoid the repetition of cases like those of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly can leave young people with different issues in danger of slipping through the safeguarding net.
“What gets talked about in the media gets acted on,” he says. “The large media interest in these cases contributed to a focus on that kind of long-term abuse over other forms.”
Kelly says sexually abused children are by far the most overlooked group. “There’s concern around the fact that children and young people who’ve been sexually abused have not been addressed in Laming, nor is there great detail around the issue in the new Working Together to Safeguard Children,” he says. “Our concern is that it’s a postcode lottery for children in this situation with regard to therapeutic support for their needs.”
Disabled children, teenagers at risk of sexual exploitation and children of parents with mental illness are neglected to a lesser degree but, when they are, it is often because of difficulties working across different agencies, Kelly says.
“As social workers, we need to talk about our experiences of trying to help these extremely vulnerable young people. We should be advocating for these groups. If we experience needs beyond those identified by Laming, we have to say so.”
The impact of neglecting these groups is significant. According to a 2002 report by the NSPCC, there is a lack of systematic data collection or research in the UK relating to child protection or abuse of disabled children.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families last year published guidance on safeguarding disabled children that said while research into the abuse of disabled children in the UK has been patchy, figures were similar to those in the US where it is said disabled children are 3.4 times more likely to be abused than other children.
Children with parents with mental health problems are no small population either. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 30-60% of people with a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar affective disorder, have children. The college says many more children live with a parent who has a long-term mental health problem, such as substance misuse, personality disorder or depression.
Focusing on these young people is important when it comes to preventive services and early intervention, providers say.
Kamran Abassi, operations director of specialist children’s home provider Advanced Childcare, says a lack of focus on children in the four neglected categories means fewer preventive services exist.
“What we’ve found when working with young people in these categories is that in more than half of their chronologies, we see lots of missed opportunities by agencies in early intervention,” he says. “This leads to unmet needs and a lack of support for these young people who later present prominent needs that require highly resourced placements such as children’s homes.”
Kevin Gallagher, chief executive of children’s home provider Bryn Melyn, says service providers need to push for resources targeted at specialist groups of young people who might not be getting the support they need from local authorities.
“From a provider’s point of view, sometimes you have to be very proactive in ensuring you’re invited to the right decision-making meetings,” he says. “There’s going to be increased pressure on public spending and therefore more competition for funding. Local authorities are going to have to make some tough decisions.”
Case study: Angela – history of sexual abuse
Angela’s* history as a victim of sexual abuse was identified only after she started committing crime. Her chronic truancy from school from her early years to adolescence was met with minimal intervention from the school. Reports that she was spending this time with older males were also not followed up.
On the health side, she missed medical appointments for immunisations and booster injections, sexually transmitted infections were left untreated, and there were repeated failures by agencies to follow through disclosures of unprotected sex with adults.
Before Angela was a teenager, social services were called to the family home to deal with domestic violence and she was also left home alone. Minimal family intervention was put in place and no assessment of needs was completed by practitioners.
While missing from home as a teenager, Angela associated with older known criminals and became involved in petty crime. This caused her to be viewed not as a victim but a perpetrator.
As a result of her crime, Angela’s history of sexual abuse came to light. She was made an emergency referral to children’s home provider Advanced Childcare.
*Name has been changed
Case study: Bobby – parent had mental ill health
Bobby’s* vulnerability as the child of a parent with a mental illness took a long time to be identified. Although his family was known to social services because one of his parents had depression, his needs were never passed on to children’s services.
One of the first signs of neglect was Bobby’s low attendance at school. He was bullied by other children due to his appearance: his uniform was unwashed; his dental care was lacking.
Parents’ meetings were never attended and, because Bobby did not present challenging behaviour, no one in the school recognised his needs.
When Bobby did start causing problems – he was arrested for shoplifting – no one bothered to talk to him to ascertain his motivation. Upon review, it was revealed that Bobby’s theft was an attempt to acquire food and other essential items for his siblings and mother. But Bobby was merely processed through the criminal system.
Social services were called to the family home several times after complaints about the state of it and objections to the lack of child supervision. Records from visits show that Bobby had been left to look after younger siblings while his mother had gone out. Family intervention and support was varied, however, due to lack of engagement by the mother and missed appointments.
Bobby was placed in a children’s home last year.
*Name has been changed
Thousands contact ChildLine
In 2008-9, ChildLine counselled 12,268 children about sexual abuse as their main problem, representing 8% of all calls answered.
Between 2004-5 and 2008-9, the annual number of children counselled by ChildLine regarding sexual abuse rose from 8,637 to 12,268, an increase of 42%.
In 2008-9, 60% of the children who spoke about sexual abuse were in the 12- to 15-year-old group.
This article is published in the 1 April 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Left behind by Laming”