Child protection and disabled children: lessons from a scoping study. Kirsten Stalker, Professor, University of Strathclyde.
Recorded Scottish Child Care and Protection Network. Contemporary issues in child protection seminar.
Transcript of a talk by Kirsten Stalker, recorded in February 2012
KS I am very pleased to have a chance to tell you about the scoping study that we did around disabled children and child protection. This was the research that I carried out with Dr Pam Greenlister at Strathclyde University, it was funded by the Sir Harry Stewart Trust and we are really keen that practitioners find out about the research and the findings. The research was an 8 month scoping study. It involved an international literature review, interviews with 10 key informants in England and Scotland, guided conversations with 4 disabled children using Child Protection Services and also some policy analysis around the 4 jurisdictions of Britain. And I am going to tell you about the main headline findings from the literature review and the interviews, and then some implications for policy and practice.
It is very clear from the literature that disabled children are significantly more likely to be abused than non-disabled children. The most authoritative figure that we have is 3.4 times greater a risk - that's from a study by Sullivan & Knutson published in the year 2000. They looked at over 50,000 aged 0-21 in the State of Nebraska, so 3.4 times higher risk for disabled children. And there are many factors that put disabled children at greater risk of abuse - for example the stress of caring, particularly if there is an absence of preventative and supportive services, some children's need for personal care that opens up opportunities for abuse, adults failure to recognise the signs of abuse in disabled children. And there are children who are at particular risk - and those are children with communication impairments, children with sensory impairments, those with learning disabilities and those who have behaviour disorders. We don't know to what extent behaviour disorders may be caused by abuse.
There is also evidence that the abuse of disabled children goes undetected often and under-reported in many countries, including Britain. And we have evidence that disabled children, if they do get referred to safeguarding systems are treated differently from non-disabled children. In particular, they are less likely to be placed on Child Protection Registers and they are less likely to be given protection plans, and that is obviously a cause for concern. There is also evidence that disabled children and young people are treated differently in criminal justice systems - cases involving suspected abuse of disabled children are less likely to go to court than those involving non-disabled children, and if they do go to court, courts may fail to take account of their particular needs and abilities. There may be inappropriate questioning styles used and specialist advice and assessment is not always brought in when it should be. So those are the main findings from the literature review.
To go onto the key informant interviews - the key informants, we had 10 of them - most in Scotland, but a couple in England, and they were senior managers in government, central government, Health Service, the voluntary sector, the Police, the Children's Commissioner Office and the 3 Inspectorates - so 10 of those people altogether. And the point of these interviews was really to try and see how policy is being implemented in practice. And it was interesting that the main findings from these interviews very much reflected and confirmed what we had found out in the literature review. So for example key informants told us that they believed abuse of disabled children is currently under-reported in England and Scotland. For example, where social workers are already working closely with parents who have a disabled child, they may be reluctant to register formal child protection concerns if they begin to think that there may be some neglect or some low level abuse going on. And there is also patchy information about disabled children or cases involving disabled children in formal inspections and reports.
Communicating with disabled children was identified as a major challenge for a lot of professionals. There seems to be a gap in training for social workers and the Police as well, and there was a concern expressed by some key informants that some professionals are actually quite resistant to engaging with disabled children and prefer to talk to their parents instead, and that is obviously a concern - not only because the child has a right to express their view themselves, but also it is possible that the parents are perpetrators of the abuse. We did find some examples of good practice however, but it was patchy. It was also reported to us that disabled children are treated differently in the criminal justice service - that they are not seen as credible witnesses, and we were given examples of cases, one or two cases that had been dropped without the Police pursuing the investigation, even where the child was able to give a testimony about what had happened to him. And this very much resulted in the child feeling devalued and feeling angry.
There is a separation often between child protection social workers and children's disability social workers, so although both have a lot of expertise in their own areas, they are not always so well up on the other - so children with disability social workers don't know a lot about child protection on the whole ... obviously there will be exceptions, and vice versa - and there doesn't seem to be as much communication and coordination between those 2 groups of professionals as there could be. And also there seems to be different understandings of what is an acceptable threshold for treatment of disabled children among different agencies. So some agencies would refer for a case conference sooner than other agencies would.
So in terms of implications for policy and practice from these findings, clearly we need a child protection system that is more accessible to, and more sensitive to the needs of disabled children and young people. For example, accessible avenues to disclose abuse, the use of expert advice and materials, allowing extra time to interview disabled children, making sure that you ascertain disabled children's views and experiences, bringing in specialist support where that is needed. There is also a need for much more safety training, sex education and accessible materials and rights awareness for disabled children themselves so that they know, they are clearer about what is right and wrong behaviour from other people.
Joint working is crucial to child protection, and there could be opportunities for staff secondments across agencies so that professionals in different disciplines find out more about what their colleagues are doing, and also dual specialisms - that would be really helpful. Also a need for joint training at all levels, from very senior management levels and even escorts on school buses, that kind of thing - anyone who is coming into contact with disabled children - and the training should be about safeguarding children, it should be about communicating with disabled children and it should be about disability equality. And organisations of disabled people should have some role in providing that training.
Inspection processes could pay particular attention to cases involving disabled children, so really trying to gain the learning from those cases.
If you want to look at our full research report and our full literature review, they are on 'strathprints' at the University of Strathclyde website and they will be attached to this recording.
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