Children with disabilities are more likely to be abused or neglected, yet less likely to be identified as children at risk of significant harm. The abuse of disabled children is often undetected and, even when suspected, is under reported. One reason that is cited for this is that as professionals we over-empathise with the parents and tolerate certain behaviours more than we would with parents of non-disabled children. This does not help the parents or the children who have the same rights to protection as everyone else.
It is therefore important that we maintain an open mind about what we are seeing, and as suggested by Lord Laming, maintain a professional curiosity. For example:
- Not accepting that an injury is a result of the needs of the child, but instead consider what other causes there may be and what the evidence suggests.
- Considering a behaviour such as self-harm as possibly being indicative of abuse.
You should consider whether the child’s development is that which would be expected of a similar child. It is important that there are also clear lines of communication between all involved in the child’s care so that concerns can be discussed and referred as necessary.
This article by the National Director for Social Care at Ofsted considers effective practices for safeguarding children, identifying areas of vulnerability such as dependency, isolation, communication barriers and issues with understanding healthy relationships and how to be safe. It argues that although many disabled children are identified as children in need, they often have unidentified child protection needs. In order to address this, it is proposed that we “all need to constantly challenge ourselves about how we can do more”.
It is also important to remember that the difficulties that families with disabled children are significant. A 2017 BBC investigation identified that there was a substantial increase in hate crimes towards disabled children, with incidents ranging from verbal and online abuse to arson and physical attacks. Although this is attributed by the Home Office to better recognition and reporting, it does identify another barrier to inclusion that is present in society. When working with disabled children it is therefore important that we ensure that understanding the day to day lived experience of the child is paramount.
- Myth: Nobody would abuse or neglect a disabled child.
- Fact: Research shows they are more than 3 times more likely to be abused.
- Myth: Disabled children are well protected because of all the helpers they have.
- Fact: Because they rely on so many people to help them, often with personal care, they are at greater risk of someone abusing their trust.
- Myth: Disabled children are not attractive to abusers.
- Fact: Abusers are usually driven by desire to dominate and some disabled children can be seen as particularly helpless.
- Myth: You can’t expect disabled children to be as well dressed and turned out as other children.
- Fact: When loved and cared for disabled children are as well turned out as any other child.
- Myth: Disabled children won’t be believed and will not be able to give evidence in court.
- Fact: Many abusers think this –but with the right help and support all disabled children can tell or show what happened to them.
- Myth: If the child cannot speak s/he cannot communicate.
- Fact: A wide range of communication systems and equipment is available and skilled people to help children communicate.
- Myth: You can’t be expected to get the views of disabled children as you can’t be sure that they are expressing their own views and opinions.
- Fact: Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is very clear: every child has a right to express their views regarding all matters that affect them; and for those views to be taken seriously.
- Myth: Abuse doesn’t have the same effect on disabled children.
- Fact: The betrayal of trust and hurt is as acutely felt as by any other child.