May 7, 2014 by Anna Gupta, Department of Social Work, Royal Holloway, University of London
Two reports have been published recently into child neglect. The messages are similar in what they say and, more crucially, what they don’t say. The Ofsted (2014) report ‘In the Child’s Time: Professional Responses to Child Neglect indicated that professionals were often not responding in timely and effective ways in cases of child neglect leaving children in harmful situations for too long. The recommendations focus on professional practice, including increased training to identify the signs of neglect, analyse risk factors and take decisive action where this is required, in addition to ‘robust management oversight of neglect cases’.
However, nowhere in this report is there any reflection on whether it is appropriate, or indeed feasible, to place the responsibility on individual practitioners for recognizing and addressing such a complex issue as neglect and, crucially, no mention at all of any of the research evidence on the impact of poverty and inequality on the lives of vulnerable children and families.
The second report, Action for Children’s (2014) Child Neglect: The scandal that never breaks, argues that despite the scale of the problem, and the devastating impact that neglect has on children’s lives, it does not receive the political attention it deserves. The report calls for the Government to produce a national strategy on neglect that includes increased training for professionals, a public awareness campaign and the updating of the criminal law on child neglect to include emotional harm. The report also highlights the need for measures to identify and promote evidence-based practice to tackle child neglect.
The omissions in this report are more striking. While their own commissioned research found that professionals and parents felt the most common reason for increased child neglect, namely the ‘elephant in the room’ was poverty, exacerbated by the Coalition Government cuts in welfare spending (Burgess et al., 2014) nowhere is this mentioned.
Whilst the vast majority of parents living in poverty do not neglect their children, the clear association between poverty and neglect has been highlighted for many years. In 1998 Professor Olive Stevenson attributed child neglect to a complex interaction of factors exacerbated by living in poverty and other studies have continued to identify this association (Spencer and Baldwin 2005; Hooper et al., 2007). Neglect is complex and often multi-dimensional. It, therefore, requires a level of sophisticated analytical assessment that recognises both psychological as well as social influences on parents and children’s functioning. Burgess et al. (2014, p. 41) rightly suggest that ‘assessments of neglect should explicitly pay detailed attention to the wider environmental factors that place additional pressure on parents and affect children’s lives’.
The literature on inequality is of great relevance here too. As Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) note, poverty needs to be understood relationally. In very unequal societies the reactions of others intensify shame. This contributes to self harm and harm to others and to a society that is more divided and less solidaristic.
Studies, such as Hooper et al. (2007), have highlighted the importance of social support to mitigate the risk of neglect among parents living in poverty. This message is repeated in the review by Burgess and colleagues (2014), which highlights the importance of family support services that are accessible to parents in order prevent problems escalating, and practitioners who build relationships and work alongside parents. Currently, cuts in family support services and pressures on local authority Children’s Services also limit the opportunities for families to work with professionals who try to understand the complexities of their lives and promote their capabilities to care effectively for their children.
Poor families are living in the eye of a perfect storm currently. Cuts in support services and changes to welfare are intensifying the already well documented pressures on them to survive and thrive. It is disappointing to find two such influential reports failing to acknowledge this and, moreover, setting families and those who work with them up to fail by producing analyses that are insufficiently located in the research evidence on the multi-dimensional nature of neglect.
Action for Children (2014) Child Neglect: The scandal that never breaks
Burgess, C., Daniel, B., Scott, J., Dobbin, H., Mulley, K. & Whitfiled, E. (2014) Preventing child neglect in the UK: what makes services accessible to children and families? An annual review by Action for Children in partnership with the University of Stirling.
Hooper, C., Gorin, S., Cabral, C. and Dyson, C. (2007) Living with hardship 24/7: The diverse experiences of families in poverty in England. London: Frank Buttle Trust.
Ofsted (2014) ‘In the Child’s Time: Professional Responses to child neglect.
Spencer, N. & Baldwin, N. (2005) ‘Economic, cultural and social contexts of neglect’. In J. Taylor and B. Daniel (eds.) Child Neglect: practice Issues for Health and Social Care. London: Jessica Kingsley
Wilkinson, R and Pickett, K. (2009) The Spirit Level. London: Penguin