Safeguarding Blog Curriculum Blog

Disabled Children and Neglect

Research suggests that disabled children* are 3.8 times more likely to be neglected than non-disabled peers (Sullivan and Knutson, 2000). In this blog we will explore some of the reasons for this, and what educators can do to further protect disabled children from neglect. For more information, please have a look at our Neglect webpage and sign up for our Introduction to Neglect and Neglect and Disabled Children training courses.

*The term ‘disabled child/ren’ is used for all children who have significant problems with communication, comprehension, vision, hearing or physical functioning, in line with the ‘Social Model of Disability’.

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Do disabled children have the same care needs as non-disabled children?

In a nutshell, yes. Disabled children still have the same needs, but they may have different ways in which their needs must be met. For example, a child who needs more supervision to keep them safe when out in public, or a child who needs a specialised diet to meet their nutritional needs, or a child who requires a particular communication method to meet their needs for stimulation and engagement. So, when it comes to identifying neglect, professionals need to have a very strong understanding of each individual child and how their needs must be met.

Why are disabled children more likely to experience neglect?

The higher prevalence of neglect experienced by disabled children can be explained in various ways (come to our Neglect and Disabled Children training course to learn more), but this blog will explore 3 in particular:

  1. Increased complexity of care needs brings with it an increase in potential for things to be missed. If we consider children with vast medication regimes, various prescribed therapy programmes to keep them in good health and a significant reliance on multiple adult care givers, it is much easier for something to be forgotten or omitted.  As education professionals, having  a comprehensive understanding about a child’s health and complex care needs can be really challenging, so we may not be as attuned to identifying neglect as we are for other children. Related to this is the finding from recent research from the Disabled Children's Partnership that suggests 80% of parents with a disabled child do not believe they receive the support needed to enable their child to fulfil their potential. So could disabled children experience higher levels of neglect because of the lack of input from key services?
  2. Families who have disabled children often experience inequalities on various fronts, and so are more likely to be enduring poverty, poor housing, social isolation and parent ill health. All of these factors affect parenting and therefore could also explain the higher rates of neglect.
  3. For children who have predicted delays in development due to their condition, professionals are less likely to be curious about the cause of any further developmental delays, and more likely to attribute these to the child’s condition. There can be a reliance on medicalising a child’s presentation (behaviour, development and wellbeing) when they have diagnosed conditions, and so this can mask the detection of concerns such as neglect. For example, if a child’s behaviour was to change, professionals may be more likely to look at this from a medical perspective and explore changes in medication, rather than consider other possible causes for the change. Or if a child with various health needs had a drop in weight, would professionals consider all the possible explanations for this, or would they be more likely to focus on medical justifications?

What can we do?

  • Activate professional curiosity and be alert to neglect - talking about some of the issues outlined above and providing examples of how neglect can be missed, can help to bring neglect to the forefront of minds. Where there are possible indicators of neglect, colleagues should be looking to rule this out as a possible cause, rather than automatically accept a medicalised explanation.
  • Align safeguarding and attendance monitoring - disabled children are more likely to have higher rates of school absence, and this can be an indicator of neglect. Are schools always exploring episodes of absence to understand the reasons for this (using the above skills), and is there a clear link in policy and in practice between Child Missing Education and Safeguarding activity?
  • Talk to partners and familiarise yourself with children's care plans – disabled children may have multiple professionals supporting them and their family. Using this network to better understand the family context and the child’s individual needs is critical. This will enable us to better recognise when a child’s needs are not being met and utilise professional expertise to determine this.
  • Build positive relationships with parents – as we know, neglect is not usually intentional. Most parents adore their children, but for an array of reasons, some struggle to meet their child’s needs- especially when facing multiple inequalities. Therefore, it is imperative schools engage and work with families in a supportive way to protect children, prevent neglect and bolster families’ resilience.

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