Guest blog: How do we make services accessible to neglected children and their families?

Posted by Guest blogger / Friday 02 May 2014 / Child neglect

For over four years, I have worked with Action for Children on their annual reviews of child neglect. In March 2014, Action for Children published our third review. During 2013/14, we spoke to over 5,000 children, young people, parents, carers and professionals about seeking and getting help when there are concerns about child neglect. From what they told us, I’ve suggested how we can make services more accessible to neglected children and their families.

We heard about the very confused feelings that neglected children and young people can have; they can understand the difficulties their parents are facing, but at the same time can feel hurt and angry. Some children don’t really know what it is that they’re missing out on because they haven’t experienced anything different.

‘Some kids don’t realise they are neglected until they get to primary school – because it has just been their life.’     
(Elijah, young person)

So teachers, social workers and other professionals need to be sensitive to the mixed emotions children and young people may have. They need to be creative and child-centred in how they support children to tell them what is happening at home. And they need to respect the loyalty that children have to their parents.  Above all, the children were clear that people can’t expect children to take all the initiative in seeking help – people need to reach to them and ask them what is troubling them.

‘Schools and teachers are supposed to help and they can. But sometimes they are too stressed and busy.’
(Kylie, young person)

Children need accessible information about how to get help. The children we spoke to thought that schools should be obvious places to find information, but because some neglected children miss a lot of school information needs to be more widely available as well.

The parents we spoke to told us about very mixed experiences of services. They thought that more help should be available before things spiral out of control and that services needed to take account of the many things that added stress to their lives, especially when trying to cope with very little money and poor housing. They explained about how difficult it is for anyone to admit that they need help and to ask people for help – especially professionals.

‘It’s hard to ask for help. They don’t give it until they decide we need it.’
(Barbara, parent)

They also said that sometimes they didn’t really understand what it was that professionals were asking them to change. At the same time, they were clear that professionals do need to do the job of protecting children.  We need services that can offer early help and support, including with practical issues. When there are concerns about neglect practitioners need to work alongside parents and have to be honest and clear about what the concerns are. They need to combine empathy and support with a clear focus on what would improve the child’s life.

Encouragingly, we found that the public are concerned about neglected children and would like to see them get help. But they are worried that they don’t know how best to get help for children. We would like to see much more accessible information for people; in particular via a website.

Asking for help can be difficult. We need a strategic, joined-up approach to tackling child neglect to make sure that neglected children, and those concerned about them, feel able to ask and get help as early as possible.

Read my full recommendations for practice in the report here.

Brigid Daniel is Professor of Social Work at the University of Stirling.

You can read more about Action for Children's work with the University of Stirling and our neglect research and resources here.

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