Public concern over child abuse should inspire action on neglect

Posted by AfC Policy and campaigns / Monday 28 September 2015 / Child neglect

Concern over child abuse, and in particular child sexual exploitation, is an issue high up on the public agenda.

In many respects this is nothing new. The outcry of public shock regarding the murder of the Victoria Climbie, the death of Peter Connolly, and further back, over the Cleveland scandal, gave urgency to Government action which significantly shifted the national landscape.  

The Child Protection Taskforce announced by the Prime Minister earlier this year is the latest example of the Government responding to public concern, this time in response to the systemic failure of several agencies to protect girls and young women from sexual exploitation in places like Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire.

Considering that, on the surface at least, these were sharp end child protection failures, the focus on abuse and exploitation is understandable. Yet a question for Action for Children is whether Government responses over the years have given anywhere near enough weight to the impact of child neglect.

This is an issue that affects 1.5 million children. It is the most prevalent form of child harm in the UK. Yet typically neglect flies under the radar of a child protection system that is more focussed on responding to identifiable incidents of specific physical harm or abuse. Though the consequences are ultimately often severe, evidence of parents neglecting their children can be difficult to piece together. All too frequently hesitation and doubt will hinder a decisive, early response for children.

Despite this evidence is growing that neglect is linked to other forms of abuse, including child sexual exploitation, while it features in over 60 per cent of serious case reviews. We also know that it can hinder a child's development and have a long-term impact on wellbeing. Difficulties in building resilience and relationships are just some of the consequences young people face if we fail to tackle neglect early on.

We believe this failure warrants urgent action. Even with the best of intentions, Governments past and present have been culpable of focussing too much on symptoms and not enough on causes. More of the same will simply not do.

Many professionals agree. They are the ones on the frontline coping with the pressures of inaction. We know from our research that as many as a third of them feel powerless to act when it comes to responding to the needs of children they suspect of suffering neglect. Both social workers and police officers cite a lack of services as the most common barrier. More than one in four social workers also struggle with a lack of resources.  

Action for Children believes that if we as a society are going to better get to grips with the harms caused to children then a radical new direction is required. Children are having to endure needless suffering before professionals are given the green light to act. 

We have therefore set out neglect as one of our main strategic priorities. We have already identified the scale of our problem through our neglect reports. Now we must find the solution. The Child Protection Taskforce offers an invaluable opportunity to confront this head on. Drawing in expertise from right across Government, with the right focus Home Office Ministers can with Education Ministers begin to piece together the kind of coherent response to neglect so many children across the country rightly deserve.  

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