How the latest research on safeguarding disabled children should inform social work

Practitioners must take time to find out disabled children's perception of events, understand their wishes and feelings, and support them to participate

It is cause for concern that there is so little research in both the UK and further afield about safeguarding disabled children. Nonetheless, consistent findings emerge throughout the available evidence.

Key messages from recent research

Stalker et al (2010), in a scoping study, found disabled children were significantly more likely to experience abuse than their peers and were subject to lower levels of reporting and registration. The study highlighted the risk of practitioners applying higher thresholds to disabled children because they saw abuse as attributable to the stress and difficulties of caring for a disabled child.

Guide for social workers

Chris Oborne has also written a social work guide on safeguarding disabled children and young people

Many practitioners said it was a challenge to communicate with disabled children, leading to difficulties in ascertaining the child’s perception of events and understanding their wishes and feelings. Disabled children were seldom involved in case conferences and assumptions were made about their inability to give credible evidence or withstand the rigours of court processes.

In a study of lessons learned from serious case reviews, Brandon et al (2011) found practitioners paid insufficient attention to the abuse of disabled children. They allowed parents’ voices to dominate; they didn’t communicate with the child; they saw the disability, not the child; they accepted a different or lower standard of parenting than would be tolerated for a non-disabled child.

Explanations for bruising were accepted by practitioners without sufficient scrutiny, and bruising was somehow (but implausibly) connected with a child’s disability. The researchers noted some professionals had difficulty believing disabled children could be deliberately harmed or neglected. In reviews concerning disabled children, researchers found the onus seemed to be on the child’s capacity to communicate well enough, rather than the professional’s responsibility to find ways of communicating.

An Ofsted thematic inspection on protecting disabled children (2012) found evidence that low-level risks were managed effectively through timely multi-agency early support. But it found children in receipt of children-in-need services too often had child protection needs that went unidentified. In some cases, decisions and assessments were not consistently well informed by previous concerns and cases were closed too early before risks were fully assessed.

Inspectors found many child protection plans were not sufficiently focused on outcomes, and it was therefore difficult to hold agencies and parents to account and to measure progress. The extent to which the views, wishes and feelings of disabled children were captured and recorded varied. Children were not always spoken to directly about the concerns for their welfare, even when they could communicate well.

The impact on practice

Social workers must recognise that disabled children are not only vulnerable to the same types of abuse as their able-bodied peers, they are also more vulnerable to abuse.

The impairment with which a child presents should not detract from early assessments of need, which consider possible underlying causes for concern. To protect disabled children, assessments must cover the ability and capacity of parents/carers to cope with the demands being placed on them.

All disabled children receiving children-in-need services, or subject to child protection plans, should have clear, outcome-focused plans, which are robustly reviewed and not allowed to drift.

Special attention should be paid to every child’s communication support needs. The necessary time should be taken to ascertain the child’s perception of events, understand their wishes and feelings and support them to participate. Practitioners should be aware of non-verbal communication systems, when they might be useful, and how to access them.

Questions for social workers to reflect on

Why are disabled children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect and what role can social workers play in reducing this added vulnerability?

What responsibilities do social workers have in ensuring that all disabled children know how to raise concerns?

What additional time and resources are required for disabled children if their account of abuse or neglect is to be made possible and their wishes and feelings heard?

Suggestions for further reading

Brandon, M., Sidebotham, P., Ellis, C., Bailey, S., and Belderson, P. (2011), Child and family practitioners understanding of child development: Lessons learnt from a small sample of serious case reviews, Department for Education, Research Report DFE-RR110

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009), Safeguarding disabled children: a resource for local safeguarding childrens boards

Ofsted (2012), Protecting disabled children: thematic inspection

Stalker, K., Green Lister, P., Lerpiniere, J., and McArthur, K. (2010), Child protection and the needs and rights of disabled children and young people: A scoping study, University of Strathclyde

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