‘New research gives clues about what went horribly wrong for these children’

Ruth Gardner, head of strategy and development at the NSPCC, takes social workers through some of the key learning in the charity’s latest research on neglect

Neglect can be 'corrosive' if left to linger, warns NSPCC

When someone says ‘child neglect’ what do you see? A dirty unkempt child? Or perhaps a lonely unloved teenager who struggles with depression and lack of self-worth? Either could be classed as neglect, but the term also encompasses a myriad of risks that can have catastrophic consequences for children if left to linger.

Today the NSPCC has published new research from the University of East Anglia on neglect and serious case reviews, as part of a major programme aimed at both improving our understanding and testing new ways of addressing child neglect.

‘First attempt to analyse neglect over time’

This research opens the “black box” that is neglect and gives us clues as to what went horribly wrong for these children and, more importantly, what we can do differently.

This is the first worldwide attempt to provide a systematic analysis of child neglect over time. It examines the frequency with which neglect had occurred, the characteristics of the children and families, and the nature of the neglect. 


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


We now know neglect was far more prevalent in these cases than previously thought, and a child protection plan for neglect is just as much an indicator of high risk as any other category. Yet the research report showed some of these cases showed “drift and a lack of urgency” or “tolerance of dangerous conditions and poor care”.

Key messages from the research

It’s potentially encouraging that numbers of children with a plan for neglect at the time of the incident appear to be dropping; however the majority of reviews are on children who were never on plans, and in some of these cases earlier action could have been taken.

The numbers for children where a plan was discontinued are not declining in the same way and this raises a question as to whether ‘stand-down’ support after a protection plan needs to be more robust, or indeed whether regular follow-up of all such cases is needed.

The researchers also examined a sample of cases from 2009-11 where neglect featured evenly across the age range and over half the children were under five. This underscores the extreme vulnerability of younger children exposed to poor care and a dangerous environment, even where the parent-child relationship appears strong.

But the real surprise is in the older age groups. In the 11 to 15 age group, neglect featured in nearly 9 out of 10 cases, many of which were suicides. This group included young people who had experienced a life time of neglect.

‘Six key pathways of neglect’

A key lesson is that all professionals need to be on high alert to situations where neglect could be overlooked. And all practitioners in all settings need to be able to deal with neglect cases in a confident, systematic and compassionate manner.

I hope this research gives social workers an invaluable insight into six key neglect pathways that could contribute to a catastrophic outcome: malnutrition; medical neglect; neglect with physical abuse; suicide among young people; accidents; sudden unexpected deaths infancy. In the last two groups there were often clear warning signs.

We now have clear evidence that neglect can lead to catastrophic harm, as well as corrosive long-term damage. The challenge now is to find effective ways to identify and tackle neglect before it destroys children’s lives.

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