Working with Children who have Experienced Neglect

By Victoria Sharley, Senior Lecturer in Social Work with Children and Families, University of Bristol and Alyson Rees, Professor in Social Work, Cardiff University

Neglect is the most common reason for a child to be on a child protection plan in the UK – in 2021 this amounted to over 27,000 children (NSPCC, 2022). Book cover: Working with children who have experienced neglect. Good Practise Guide.Neglect has been found to be prevalent in three-quarters of child case reviews concerning the death or serious harm of children, and is experienced by half of all children who are subject to a child protection plan or on a child protection register in the UK (NSPCC, 2021). But despite its continued prevalence, responding to neglect in a timely way that provides children with the support they need remains a complex and challenging task for practice. These challenges are emphasised in the recent publication of The Child Protection Practice Review Panel’s Annual Report which draws attention to the complex nature of neglect and raises questions about our ability to respond to it effectively in practice when supporting children and their families.

Despite our familiarity with the significance of neglect in safeguarding, its dominance in child in need and child protection interventions, and the continuous lessons offered in high profile reviews into child deaths, neglect remains challenging to identify and conceptualise. Neglect in its broadest sense can be understood as a child’s needs not being sufficiently met. Aside from this broad definition, there are narrower definitions in legal, policy and organisational contexts (Daniel et al. 2014). Neglect is conceptually complex in that it changes over time, space and cultural contexts, making it more challenging to classify compared to other types of maltreatment such as physical or sexual abuse.

Our understandings are often rooted to our individual perceptions of neglect, such as our experiences of being parented, parenting ourselves, professional training, personal and professional experiences, our awareness and recognition of inequalities and poverty, and cultural biases. These points are critical for unlocking access to sparse resources, in that our understandings underpin our ability to articulate concerns effectively, and enable us to clearly evidence levels of harm (or risk of harm) in line with local authority thresholds for intervention. It is also much more challenging to attempt to evidence the absence or omission of something in a child’s care, rather than identifying an act of commission such as physical chastisement. Our perceptions of neglect can make it increasingly difficult to classify concerns, and often create obstacles for practitioners identifying neglect at the earliest point possible. This means it is more difficult to get the right support to families, addressing issues before they escalate and become critical, as emphasised in the recent review of Children’s Social Care (MacAlister, 2022).

Interprofessional practice has long been acknowledged as a sizable and persistent challenge across all social work settings. Agency role, remit, funding stream, discourse, language, even organisational and individual understandings of what collaborative working entails  – all unite to create a perfect environment for misunderstandings and miscommunications to arise.  When we are required to work together across organisational boundaries in the context of neglect-practice, complexities intensify in the struggle for achieving collective understanding. This can be in relation to defining neglect, understanding neglect in the context of poverty, receiving and processing concerns about children, clearly and accurately recording information, undertaking analysis, and acting on multi-agency decisions which are all current challenges for practice (Dickens, et al. 2021), and all of which require skills and shared approaches for effective responses.

The welcomed publication of Coram BAAF’s new good practice guide on ‘working with children who have experienced neglect’ written by Dr Victoria Sharley and Professor Alyson Rees has recently been published. The practice guide provides accessible, authoritative, and helpful strategies aimed at supporting practitioners based within in a range of settings, to work with children affected by neglect. The practice guide is written in plain English and is intended to be a ‘go to’ resource for people supporting children impacted by neglect. It includes ‘real life’ case studies in each chapter written by experienced practitioners, mangers and carers, wishing to share their knowledge and experiences of working effectively with neglect in a range of settings, and at various points in the delivery of statutory services.

The good practice guide raises questions such as ‘why is the most prevalent form of child maltreatment so difficult to respond to in practice?’, ‘what are the common challenges experienced in identifying and evidencing neglect?’, ‘how can we ensure that children and carers receive the support they need?’, and ‘how can we work together more effectively across organisational boundaries to ensure children are safeguarded effectively and receive the support they need at the earliest point possible?’. The guide begins with the early identification of neglect when children are living with their birth parents or family members, focusing upon understanding neglect as a concept, assessment, intervention, and the importance of multi-agency practice and working across services. It then offers messages and guidance for how to effectively work with children who are receiving support to recover from the trauma of neglect, children who may be cared for by friends, family members, foster carers, in residential care, or who have been adopted. Each of the guide’s chapters concludes with key messages and insights that set out examples of what has been found to work well in practice, together with ideas and activities for use in reflective supervision.

The book is now available for purchase via the Coram BAAF bookshop. If you would like to listen to a short interview with the authors discussing the book you can do so here: Stream episode Interview with the Authors, Victoria Sharley and Alyson Rees by CoramBAAF podcast | Listen online for free on SoundCloud

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