Ofsted: Extent of child neglect 'not understood'

Daniel Pelka, one of many children who died in the hands of those supposed to be caring for them

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Local authorities are not doing enough to protect children from neglect, according to a report by Ofsted.

The education watchdog wants the extent of neglect better understood by councils and safeguarding-children boards, and development of more shared strategies to prioritise action.

Figures suggest most children know another child suffering from neglect.

The Department for Education said it was "already on track" to deliver some of the report's key recommendations.

The Ofsted inspectors found "inconsistent approaches" to assessing neglect, and conclude that children are being left for too long in harmful situations in nearly half of the long-term cases they examined.

'Not good enough'

Failures to take repeat incidents and family histories into account, and prioritising the needs of vulnerable adults over children were features of poor practice, the report says.

It says the management oversight of risk and decisions was "not good enough".

The report also recommends that social work training is improved to increase professional understanding of the impact of neglect on children's lives.

Ofsted example

"J" is a primary-school-age boy and a carer for his mother, who has used alcohol for many years.

He is constantly anxious about his mother's wellbeing and attempts to control her drinking, while also caring for his younger sister.

The child describes how he and his sister go to the pub with their mother most nights to monitor her drinking.

The child tells his mother when to stop drinking and if she does not listen asks the barman to stop serving her.

The child speaks of being at the pub "very late, being really tired and hungry, wanting to go home to bed and mother refusing".

The assessment describes frequent occasions when there was a lack of food in the house and no bedding on the children's beds.

The younger child is described as very emotionally distressed and has been seen by an educational psychologist who diagnosed her as "hyper-alert" and in need of one-to-one support in school at all times, to enable her to access education.

She speaks a great deal about death and dying, being burnt in her house and not living until the next day.

Source: In the child's time: Professional responses to neglect

Debbie Jones, Ofsted's director for social care, said the "devastating impact" of neglect on a child's life was "widely accepted".

"At its very worst, it can be fatal," she said.

"Some children live with serious and complicated difficulties in their families, and we need to examine what we can and should be doing to stop neglect far earlier in their lives."

"Absolutely vital to this is ensuring all social care practitioners are able to recognise the impact that neglect has on children, as well as being properly supported by skilled and experienced managers who are able to advise on help and intervention before the damage becomes irreparable."

The Ofsted inspectors did find many examples of positive work to tackle neglect, but many of the social-care professionals they interviewed were not offered in-depth training to recognise the signs of neglect, and were not given access to information about best practice.

"Social care professionals have a tough job to do," said Debbie Jones.

"The pressure of increased workloads and the scrutiny on child protection means that dealing with this challenging area effectively can be extremely difficult."

An official from the Department for Education said the report "highlights the devastating consequences neglect can have on vulnerable children, which is why we've been clear that anyone working with children should take swift action when alerted to the early signs of abuse and neglect".

"Our determination to tackle this problem remains resolute," the official said.

Start Quote

Councils will not hesitate to intervene”

End Quote David Simmonds Local Government Association

"We are reforming child protection so social workers have the skills and space to better use their professional judgement, and have appointed a chief social worker to ensure the very best practice prevails.

"We're already on track to deliver on a number of the report's key recommendations, such as overhauling the training and education for social workers following [government adviser] Sir Martin Narey's review, giving trainees the expertise they need in critical areas like neglect.

"We have also given the NSPCC over £11m to run a comprehensive 24/7 advice and reporting service for those who have concerns about a child, and are developing training materials with the sector to help improve practice in this area."

The chairman of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, David Simmonds, said: "No child should remain in an unsafe or neglectful environment, and councils will not hesitate to intervene when children are thought to be at risk.

"In cases where the situation is not clear-cut, social workers face incredibly tough decisions between leaving a child with a loving but struggling family or the risks of taking them into care.

"Social workers still too often hear about children at risk when it is too late, and it is vital that agencies like the police, schools and health come together locally to review and improve the way we all work together to deal with neglect."

'Ongoing failure'

The Ofsted report coincides with a survey conducted for the charity Action for Children.

The charity found that 73% of children said they knew another child suffering from neglect.

Action for Children says neglect now affects 1.5 million children - one in 10 of the UK's child population.

It defines child neglect as "an ongoing failure to provide the right care and attention to a child's needs, ranging from obvious physical signs such as being severely under or over weight to being ignored when distressed.

Debbie Jones, Ofsted: "If you feel afraid as a professional walking into a house... imagine what it's like for a young child"

"For some, child neglect can result in death, either through starvation or due to accidents because of a lack of supervision."

The charity says the government "does not have a strategy to deal with the problem".

Its chief executive, Sir Tony Hawkhead, said: "Child neglect is rife.

"Evidence points to an average of more than one child on every street in the country who is suffering from some form of neglect.

"They are not fed or clothed properly. They consistently miss medical appointments or are absent from school. They are ignored by their parents, left on their own or completely disregarded by the people who are supposed to love them unconditionally.

"Our research shows that children as young as eight can see it, so why can't the government do more?"

The report, Child Neglect: The Scandal That Never Breaks, also suggests 52% of children who were worried about another child told someone about their concerns, and that a third of professionals "feel powerless" to help neglected children.

The survey was conducted online by the polling company YouGov.

It spoke to more than 5,000 children, adult members of the public, and professionals, including teachers, social workers and health care workers.

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