According to the children’s charity Action for Children, child neglect is the most common form of maltreatment in the UK, as well as being the most common reason for a child to be made subject to a child protection plan. 46% of children are subject to a child protection plan due to neglect and the number of identified cases of child neglect has tripled between 2003 and 2017.

We looked at 20 serious case reviews published between 2016 and 2018 where neglect was known or suspected to be a factor in a child’s serious injury or death (Solem, Diaz and Hill 2020). We wanted to find out if there were common themes that might be remedied with recommended changes to the way Children’s Care services are run.

A Problem of Definition

The reviews highlighted that professional perspectives may have impacted negatively on social workers’ ability to recognise and act on indicators of neglect. Previous researchers have found that the uncertainty around the definition and different types of neglect may lead to confused opinions and differing personal perceptions of what constitutes it.

The case of Child BW in Blackpool in 2017 illustrates how neglect may be subjective; professionals may vary in their views of what is ‘good enough’. The Blackpool review stated that due to the high level of child poverty in the area, subjectivity may have affected professional judgements. In other words, if it is widely recognised that a ‘normal’ quality of life for a child in a certain area is already quite low, the usual warning signs for neglect may be missed. There is a concerning knock on effect of subjective opinions. Researchers have found that, in areas where there is higher deprivation, the threshold for intervention of neglect may be higher. It is important to state that the majority of parents who live in poverty do not neglect their children. But there is a link between poverty and neglect as parenting is so much more difficult when you have no money and this can be seen as a causal factor in neglect (Byswaters et al 2016).

Another case from Sunderland in 2017 further demonstrates how differing opinions of what constitutes neglect can lead to tragic outcomes. In this case, there was a clear disagreement amongst professionals involved with the family about what constituted neglect, and as a result, no single agency had a clear picture of the neglect the children were experiencing. Records showed a range of issues that would commonly point to neglect, such as poor home conditions, very low education attendance, missed health appointments, sexualised behavior and lack of supervision. Despite such signals, the SCR suggests professionals were overly optimistic and decided despite ample evidence to the contrary, that the children’s emotional needs were being met. This demonstrates that the classification of neglect can be too generalised, and that there had been no analysis of why the different issues were present or how they were experienced by the children.

Social work professionals in Sunderland were not alone: despite the range of academic resources available to help professionals understand, conceptualise and recognise neglect, over half of the serious case reviews we looked at described how professionals struggled to recognise neglect and in turn act to safeguard the children. Researchers (Dubowitz 2007; Connolly 2017) have found that neglect is still not viewed as seriously as physical and sexual abuse, and often neglect occurs alongside such abuse, which becomes the main focus of the intervention. As a consequence, there may be a tendency for social workers to ‘downgrade’ neglect in terms of risk of danger to a child.

In addition the Children’s Social Care is under pressure; there has been an increase in care proceedings by 130% from 2009 to 2016 (Jones 2016) Despite this growing demand, it is estimated that there has been approximately a 35% reduction in central government funding to Children’s Social Care (National Audit Office 2019). Certainly, with increasing workloads due to austerity, research has found that social workers have to risk-manage their workload, which often leads to physical abuse being prioritised over neglect (Stokes and Taylor 2014).

A creaking system

Alongside confusion about what constitutes neglect and an increased workload, the systems that social workers work within further hamper their ability to achieve safeguarding children. In 45% of the serious case reviews it was highlighted that organisational culture negatively impacted on the practice of social workers. Social work has become dependent on overly bureaucratic systems, which has resulted in a reduction in the amount of time social workers are able to spend doing direct work with children and families.

Following the widely publicized death of Victoria Climbie in 2003, Lord Laming’s inquiry made recommendations related to child protection in England. In his 2009 progress report, he emphasised the immense pressure that children’s frontline social workers are under: ‘low morale, poor supervision, high caseloads, under resourcing and inadequate training each contribute to high levels of stress and recruitment and retention difficulties’ (Laming 2009, p.4). Since then austerity has led to funding for LAs and other support services being massively cut and rates of referrals, children subject to child plans and care proceedings have increased significantly.

Findings from the serious case reviews indicate that those ‘retention difficulties’ and high caseloads for social workers can themselves lead to tragedy. Six of the 20 reviews we looked at highlighted the presence of high staff turnover and high caseloads which caused drift and impacted on the day-to-day management of child protection plans. In the reviews of Baby W and Child in Sunderland the family had been assigned five social workers in the space of just six months. The potential negative impact of organisational culture is further highlighted in the serious case review for Family HJ (Hertfordshire 2016):

The wider context at the time was that the local authority was facing significant difficulties due to high levels of Looked After Children and children on child protection plans, resource issues, high staff turnover and high case-loads. This was thought to be a significant issue in the delay in determining that these children were suffering significant harm.

The serious case review of Child B’s death in Staffordshire found that the teams within the local authority’s Children’s Services were operating as one team due to numerous team managers being off with long-term sickness. This meant that one team manager was supervising more than 20 social workers. In addition, the local authority had difficulties retaining and recruiting staff, which meant that the team consisted largely of newly qualified social workers and agency staff. It was recorded that the newly qualified social worker working with Child B and his family had 43 open cases. This would inevitably have caused a deterioration in the quality of practice, decision-making and case planning.

The serious case review for Bethany (Bedfordshire, 2016) reported that Bethany had been assigned five different social workers within a period of less than two years. This led to difficulty in providing continuity of planning and monitoring, and there had been a tendency to ‘start again’ when a new social worker became involved.

Seen and not heard

The knock on effect of overstretched staff dealing with an overly bureaucratic system is that they have less time to listen to the people that are the focus of their work – the children. The right for the child to participate in the assessment process is rooted within legislation and policy in England. The Children Act 1989 highlights that local authorities should, where possible, ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child and take these into consideration when making decisions that affect them. We found that in a majority of the serious case reviews we looked at, the voice of the child had not been consistently heard or considered, and that children were not seen alone or seen frequently enough.

The reviews frequently emphasised that children and young people were not asked about their life and experiences, something that was consistent across age groups. Therefore, it was not evident from the case notes and assessments what life was like for those children who experienced neglect.

The SCR of Child N in Trafford highlights a theme that emerged within several SCRs:

The contacts and observations of the children made by social worker 2 and social worker 3 were limited to short visits to the home and none of the children were purposefully engaged in any direct work to ascertain how they experienced day to day life or to establish whether they wished to discuss any worries or concerns.

This is in line with the findings from research undertaken Ferguson (2016), which identified that most of the time spent doing child protection work consists of relating to children and parents concurrently. His study found that a large number of children were not seen alone in everyday child protection practice, and that when time was spent with children, it was often too brief.

Based on the 20 SCRs analysed in this study, it still appears to be the case that, at times, vulnerable children are not heard or seen and hence remain invisible.

Our research suggests that professionals are still over-reliant on children talking about neglect and their experiences, which places too much responsibility on the children to talk to professionals about their experiences. This study found that in five of the eight SCRs where the children were on a child protection plan at the time of the critical incident, children were not seen frequently enough and there was little evidence of direct work being carried out.

Conclusion

Neglect is complex and multifaceted, and needs to be reflected upon in the context of increasing demands and pressures on agencies and the professionals within them. So, if social workers are finding it difficult to identify neglect with certainty and they’re overloaded with too much work this leaves them little time to properly spend time with the children that are the focus of their work, what can be done to prevent them leaving and further weakening the childcare system?

Social workers need training on recognising and responding to neglect that leaves no room for doubt. As identified by Stokes and Taylor (2014), such training should focus on facilitating a more in-depth understanding of child development and, in particular, children’s emotional and behavioural responses to neglected.

Furthermore, until reasonable workloads are in place and local authorities are adequately funded, it will be very difficult for social workers to work effectively with children and families where neglect is an issue.

Clive Diaz – Cardiff University
diazcp@cardiff.ac.uk
@diaz_clive

References

Bywaters, P., Bunting, L., Davidson, G., Hanratty, J., Mason, W., McCartan, C. and Steils, N. (2016) The Relationship Between Poverty, Child Abuse and Neglect: An Evidence Review, York, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Connolly, M. (2017) Beyond the Risk Paradigm in Child Protection, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Dubowitz, H. (2007) ‘Understanding and addressing the ‘neglect of neglect’: Digging into the molehill’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 31 (6), pp. 603-606.

Jones, R. (2016) The Conundrum of Neglect, available online at: http://cdn.basw.co.uk/

upload/basw_82352-4.pdf (accessed 2 May 18).

Laming. (2009) The Protection of Children in England: A Progress Report, London, The Stationery Office.

National Audit Office. (2019) Pressures on children’s social care, London, National Audit Office.

Solem, L., Diaz, C. and Hill, L. (2020) A study of serious case reviews between 2016 and 2018: what are the key barriers for social workers in identifying and responding to child neglect? Journal of Children’s Services https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JCS-04-2019-0024/full/html

Stokes, J. and Taylor, J. (2014) ‘Does type of harm matter? A factorial survey examining the influence of child neglect on child protection decision-making’, Child Care in Practice, 20 (4), pp. 383–398.

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