‘People feel powerless to step in if they suspect child neglect’

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Almost half of us are worried about a neglected child but feel powerless to intervene, according to a landmark report from children’s charity, Action for Children.

The charity has found a worrying picture of neglected children in the south-east getting trapped in, rather than caught by, the safety net in place to protect them, as both the public and professionals such as social workers, teachers, health workers and nursery staff are increasingly aware of child neglect, yet are unsure as to what to do.

Polls were conducted as part of a comprehensive UK-wide review of child neglect – the first of a new annual series .

More than 4,000 people, including the general public, a range of professionals, and 47 local authorities, took part in the research through polling and focus groups.

Of members of the public in the south-east that the charity spoke to, almost half (49 per cent) said they are worried about the welfare or safety of a child they know or who is living in their area; however, of those who said they were worried, only 65 per cent felt able to tell someone about their concerns.

Those who did not cited reasons such as not knowing enough about the signs of neglect; being fearful of the repercussions of being mistaken; or having little or no evidence, as barriers to acting.

It comes as 77 per cent of professionals in the south-east – including teachers, health workers and nursery staff – have revealed to the charity that although they regularly see cases of suspected child neglect,

13 per cent of them have never been given guidance or training about neglect and how to tackle the issue. Many have shared with Action for Children their concerns over making referrals, with teachers reporting sleepless nights wondering what they should do in cases of suspected child neglect.

The figures are just part of the wider UK picture – nearly half of social workers questioned across Britain said they felt that the point at which they could intervene in cases of child neglect was too high (42 per cent) and for those children who did meet the level at which they could intervene, many cited a lack of resources (52 per cent) or support services to refer families to (43 per cent) as obstacles.

The percentage of social workers who say they feel powerless to intervene in cases of child neglect has gone up from a third since 2009.

Studies suggest that up to 10 per cent of all children in the UK have experienced neglect.

Jan Parker, a spokesperson for The College of Social Work and senior social work lecturer at Southampton University, said: “Unlike physical and sexual abuse, where the signs can often be very obvious, identifying neglect is more complex creating a barrier between getting the child and family the help they desperately need.

“The point at which social workers can intervene in cases of neglect is too high. This high threshold allows the challenges families face to deteriorate to the point where they need urgent help.

“Even when a child has been identified as being neglected, social workers struggle to get them the support they need due to a lack of time or resources.

“The system, in its current state, falls short in providing the safety and security neglected children need. It is important that social workers are given a stronger role in early intervention and that services are appropriately organised to achieve this aim.”

Further findings include:

> 81 per cent of professionals that come into contact with children have suspected children of being neglected (compared with 78 per cent in 2009).

> These professionals also stated that the most helpful improvement in tackling child neglect would be if they were able to report less serious suspicions before they became worse (55 per cent of primary school staff, 46per cent of pre-school and nursery staff and 41 per cent of health professionals).

> 80 per cent of social workers think that cuts to services will make it more difficult to intervene in cases of child neglect.

> Over a third (37 per cent) of the general public said they would like more information about who to contact if they have a concern about a child who is being neglected. This has gone up from 23 per cent in 2009.

Action for Children will monitor the scale and impact of UK child neglect and society’s response to the issue on an ongoing basis, reporting back annually on progress made and making key recommendations to the government.

Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, said: “Neglect corrodes childhoods, robbing the most vulnerable children of hope, happiness and life chances. All our findings point to the stark reality that neglected children and their parents are being identified, but neither the professionals nor the public feel empowered to help or intervene, particularly at the early stages.

“When it comes to child neglect the reality is, we are only tackling the tip of the iceberg, and there are many thousands out there in desperate need. We are currently missing critical opportunities to help, and putting valued professionals in an impossible position.”

Action for Children is calling for;

> The Department for Education to improve local authority data collection on child neglect;

> All parents to be given information about local parenting support services available to them;

> The government to introduce a new duty on local authorities and partners to provide sufficient local early help services, as recommended by the Munro Review 2011;

> Early support services and new family support initiatives to be funded for at least five years.