Safeguarding disabled children

Listening to and communicating with disabled children and young people is fundamental to safeguarding them, says the NSPCC's David Miller

Boy looking out windowIn 2003, a young disabled person from the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People said: “People don’t listen to you if you have a communication impairment.”

Sadly, little has changed since then.

Too many disabled children go unheard, and their needs go unrecognised. 

Disabled children are three times more likely to be abused (Jones et al, 2012) but, despite improvements in the child protection system, many barriers to the equal protection of disabled children remain.

Risks and barriers for safeguarding disabled children

Having worked with, or on behalf of, disabled children for the last 26 years, I've become very aware of the barriers to safeguarding them.

They include:

  • Disabled children not being valued as equal citizens
  • Assumptions being made about a child's injury or behaviour without further exploration
  • The child and his/her family being unable to access support services
  • The child being dependent on carers, lacking understanding or being unable to communicate abuse
  • Thresholds for abuse not being applied appropriately by professionals
  • Assessments lacking a child focus (Miller and Brown, 2014)

I know from experience how familiar these barriers are.

Weaknesses in the child protection system

Ofsted’s thematic inspection on protecting disabled children in 2012 identified a number of weaknesses in the child protection system, especially when concerns were not clear-cut.

The report looked at all stages, from early support to the identification of, and response to, child protection concerns.

It considered actions taken to protect disabled children and young people, and identified factors that promote effective protection - and the barriers to achieving this.

It also considered how well local authorities and Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) evaluate impact and made a number of recommendations aimed at LSCBs and local agencies.

A key finding from the Ofsted inspection was that most LSCBs and local authorities were not in a position to assess the quality of work to protect disabled children.

Systems were not well established to evaluate and report on the quality and impact of work to ensure that child protection concerns for disabled children were recognised and responded to effectively.

Has anything changed since 2012?

To consider the progress made on Ofsted's recommendations, and the effectiveness of local arrangements to protect disabled children, the National Working Group on Safeguarding Disabled Children (NWGSDC) undertook a survey of LSCBs in England in 2015.

The NWGSDC works to ensure that the additional safeguarding needs of disabled children and young people are identified and met.

It is co-chaired by the NSPCC and the Ann Craft Trust, and currently includes representatives and experts from the Council for Disabled Children, Action for Children, Contact a Family, NHS England, Image in Action, National Deaf CAMHS, NDCS and the University of Manchester.

Responses to the survey were received from 36 out of 146 LSCBs (25%).

It found numerous examples of creative and innovative child-centred practice.

However, responses overall indicated an inconsistent, rather than systematic, approach to the safeguarding of disabled children.

Overall, LSCBs have not made sufficient progress against Ofsted’s 2012 recommendations.

Key findings from the LSCB survey

  • A number of respondent LSCBs had not recognised disabled children as a key risk group and developed local action plans that address their specific safeguarding needs
  • Many respondent LSCBs are not systematically gathering and evaluating information on disabled children
  • Less than half of respondent LSCBs had implemented measures to ensure thresholds for child protection were understood and applied
  • Survey responses indicate that overall there is a lack of strategic, preventative approaches to safeguarding disabled children

The future of safeguarding disabled children

Over the years, there’s much I’ve learnt about working with disabled children and their families.

We need to continually challenge ourselves about whether we really are valuing and treating disabled children equally. Consulting with and listening to disabled children is an important part of the journey.

It’s also essential that local authorities, the police and the health service take the lead in driving through arrangements to protect disabled children from abuse. Disabled children should be recognised as a key risk group and an effective range of provision and support in the local area is required in order to safeguard them.

All children have the right to protection from abuse. A child protection system that is effective for disabled children is one that will be more effective for all children.

Click here to read a report on the LSCB survey.

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