Protecting disabled children: What the latest research tells us

A group of academics highlight the lessons for social workers from the latest studies of safeguarding disabled children

By Kirsten Stalker, Julie Taylor, Debi Fry, Chris Jones, Audrey Cameron, Alasdair Stewart and Anita Franklin*

Disabled children are 3 to 4 times more likely to be abused than non-disabled children. However, the real prevalence rates are probably higher because there’s also evidence that the abuse of disabled children is widely under-reported.

Children with communication impairments, learning disabilities and ‘behavioural disorders’ are particularly vulnerable. The abuse of disabled children appears to start at an earlier age than for other children and boys are disproportionately affected.

Disabled children are more likely than others to be abused by family members or someone they know, but are also vulnerable to maltreatment in care settings.

A recent study of child protection practice in Scotland suggests that disabled children fare less well in child protection services than their non-disabled peers. Despite social workers’ desire to be child-centred, some were anxious about or even resistant to working with disabled children.

Where a child had communication impairments, this could be seen as a real obstacle. One social worker told the study: “If you can’t communicate with a child, then you just kind of give up.”

Other social workers, however, have creative ways to adapt communication with disabled children and seek their views.

The research raised concerns about the risk of social workers over-empathising with parents, based on the view that having a disabled child was very burdensome. This can take the focus away from the child’s needs and may even allow neglect or abuse to continue.

Some practitioners from other agencies – health, education, the police and the third sector – believed that social workers sometimes applied higher thresholds for action to disabled children than were advisable, giving examples of young people “left in squalor for far too long”.

Another study, funded by the NSPCC, explored disabled children’s help-seeking behaviours following abuse and how public services respond.

The study interviewed three disabled children and seven disabled adults. As children, all had experienced abuse or neglect for several years. Seven had told someone else what was happening at the time, in some cases on several occasions, but for only two people did this lead to positive action that stopped the abuse.

Some participants had tried to convey their distress through challenging behaviour, including attempted suicide. Often such behaviours were assumed to be impairment-related.

Disclosures were not always handled well by adults, leaving children feeling disbelieved and disempowered. One barrier to effective help-seeking was a lack of awareness among children and practitioners of what constitutes abuse of disabled children.

Other barriers included the low credibility attributed to disabled children’s stories and the young people’s own feelings of self-blame, fear and isolation. A lack of communication support was a major hurdle for some, particularly deaf children.

Enablers of protection included access to professional interpreters and supportive, trusting relationships so children felt they could disclose and be believed.

Only one of these 10 cases was successfully prosecuted, where the perpetrator had been discovered by a police officer. Some of the adults interviewed felt an enduring sense of injustice.

Long-term consequences included disrupted education and poor mental health, although a few participants said they had been able to transform childhood adversity into a more satisfying adult life.

Lessons for practice

  • Work proactively to identify potential signs of abuse: do not assume that disabled children are immune
  • Assessments of disabled children’s needs should be accompanied by assessment of their parents’/carers’ ability and willingness to cope
  • Take steps to reduce disabled children’s social isolation through – for example – sports, leisure activities or befriending
  • Early in an investigative process, seek advice from professionals who know the child well, perhaps a teacher or third sector support worker
  • Bring together expertise in child protection and children’s disability
  • Seek the child’s view about what is happening and what should happen next, adapting communication and providing support as required. Ask a speech and language therapist to help if appropriate
  • Arrange independent advocacy and/or a professional interpreter for the child as required
  • Offer counselling
  • Ask local schools to provide sex and relationships education and safety skills training for disabled children
  • Train staff in communicating with disabled children and protecting disabled children
  • Challenge attitudes that discredit or diminish disabled children’s capacity to be credible witnesses
  • Liaise with criminal justice services to ensure appropriate support is available for children meeting the police or attending court

*Author details are:
Kirsten Stalker, professor of disability studies, University of Strathclyde
Julie Taylor, professor of child protection, NSPCC Research Centre, University of Edinburgh
Debi Fry, child protection lecturer, Moray House Institute of Education, University of Edinburgh
Chris Jones, child protection lecturer, NSPCC Research Centre, University of Edinburgh
Audrey Cameron, research assistant, NSPCC Research Centre, University of Edinburgh
Alasdair Stewart, research assistant, Department of Urban Studies, University of Glasgow
Anita Franklin, reader, Children and Family Research Centre, Coventry University

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One Response to Protecting disabled children: What the latest research tells us

  1. Planet Autism August 19, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    But likewise, there is a certain amount of scaremongering and “flavour of the moment” attitude that leads to innocent families being wrongly accused of abusing their children.

    Lack of training of social workers in disabilities, leads to assumptions, for instance lack of eye contact or appearing ‘withdrawn’ is equally a trait of autism or potentially something indicative of abuse.

    Until social workers have correct and sufficient disability training, learn to work respectfully with families and stop the automatic blame culture, innocent families will continue to be torn apart. That is horrendous.

    This study, though old, is something that is still happening:

    And this article shows how things can get railroaded down the wrong track:

    It is absolutely not OK for innocent families to be caught in the child protection net, under any circumstances. “Collateral damage” with peoples’ lives, wellbeing and future is not OK and never will be.