Children first: the child protection system in England - Education Committee Contents

2  Neglect

The definition of neglect

41. Neglect is the most common form of child abuse in England. Yet it can be hard to pin down what is meant by the term. Professor Harriet Ward told us that, based on her research into what was known about neglect and emotional abuse, "we definitely have a problem with what constitutes neglect" and that "we need to know much more about what we actually mean when we say neglect".[26] Phillip Noyes of the NSPCC agreed that "There is a dilemma with professionals, and indeed the public, about what comprises neglect, what should be done and how we should do it".[27] He went on to explain his belief that: "at the heart of neglect [...] is a lack or loss of empathy between the parent and child".[28]

42. There are two statutory definitions of neglect: one for criminal and one for civil purposes. Neglect is a criminal offence under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 where it is defined as failure "to provide adequate food, clothing, medical aid or lodging for [a child], or if, having been unable otherwise to provide such food, clothing, medical aid or lodging, he has failed to take steps to procure it to be provided".[29] Action for Children has called for a review of this definition, declaring it "not fit for purpose" because of the focus on physical neglect rather than emotional or psychological maltreatment.[30] Action for Children also believe that the definition leaves parents unclear about their responsibilities towards children and seeks only to punish parents after neglect has happened rather than trying to improve parenting.[31]

43. Some of our witnesses, including those from children's charities, agreed on the need for review and reform.[32] For example, the Chief Executive of CEOP and representative of ACPO, Peter Davies, considered that both civil and criminal definitions "do need to be clarified and tailored to be more relevant to the agency dealing" with the case.[33] The RCPCH agreed that a review was necessary: specifically, "Failure to provide for a child's emotional, physical, nutritional and educational needs must be incorporated into the legal definition."[34]

44. Others questioned whether the definition was in reality causing difficulties, since most practitioners and the system operated on the basis of the civil definition (see below) and had developed relatively sophisticated understanding of neglect. Professor Munro commented that "You would make a lot of lawyers very rich for a very long time if you tried to come up with a legal definition that captured the complexity of the scenarios that in reality you have to deal with".[35] Judge Crichton told us "there is a huge danger in trying to over-define what we are talking about. It is a bit like describing an elephant: it is not easy to sit here and describe them, but my God, if one comes through the door I know one when I see one. Neglect is in that category."[36] It is worth noting perhaps that these views came from those primarily involved with the civil courts rather than the criminal system.

45. The Minister told us that the Department had "looked into" the 1933 definition as a result of the Action for Children campaign. The conclusion reached was that "the overwhelming view was that the law is not being interpreted in a 1933 fashion" and that "The way the law operates in courts is fit for purpose in 2012".[37] He was concerned that changing the definition in the way suggested "on the face of it, [...] would be a charter for lawyers to look at the law".[38] In light of the concern expressed to us and the growing awareness of the importance of recognising neglect, we believe that there is a strong argument for a more thorough examination of the issues involved. We recommend that the Government investigate thoroughly whether the narrow scope of the definition contained in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 is causing problems in bringing criminal cases of neglect.

46. The civil definition of neglect which is used in child and family law is set out in the Children Act 1989 as part of the test of 'significant harm' to a child. This is expanded upon in the previous Working Together statutory guidance which describes neglect as:

the persistent failure to meet a child's basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child's health or development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment); protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger; ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate care-givers); or ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment. It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child's basic emotional needs.

This description is repeated in the draft statutory guidance on Managing individual cases: the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families which accompanies the new redraft of the main Working Together document issued in June 2012.

47. We heard calls for the civil definition of neglect also to be reviewed. The NSPCC pointed out that the two definitions "are slightly at odds with each other" and that "in criminal law, wilfulness is relevant but in civil law, it is not".[39] Mr Noyes explained that, with the civil definition, "the critical words are around persistent failure and obviously to do with significant harm. How you judge how persistent is persistent, and what counts as a failure is really a matter of judgment, but motivation does not come into it".[40] He suggested that "it is the right time to review the definitions in both criminal and civil legislation by a really serious think nationally about best practice that would drive both civil and criminal definitions".[41]

48. Asked how the definition should be revised, Enver Solomon of the Children's Society told us that "one of the key issues around improving the definition is to look at how it better captures the need to take into account young people's age and development".[42] The intention would be not to create a series of definitions but instead "a specific overall definition [...and] a recognition within setting out the definition of the differential issues around age development".[43] In particular, this could address concerns in respect of adolescents: both in terms of defining what kinds of treatment constitutes neglect of this age group, and of professionals' ability to recognise neglect in young people and take action. Others considered that a change to differential definitions may not be the right approach. For example, Peter Davies of CEOP/ACPO told us that "we would strongly recommend that the definitions are not age specific and should be focused around signs of vulnerability" because "imposing age related thresholds for what constitutes neglect may cause indicators of this to be missed".[44]

49. Picking up the concerns raised by Action for Children in connection with the criminal definition, we also explored in evidence whether it would be useful to set out in statute a statement of what constituted positive parenting. This approach has been adopted in Scotland. On the whole, witnesses were not enthusiastic about the idea. While accepting that "the Children Act [...] concentrates on omission or failure—gross acts of bad behaviour by parents", Phillip Noyes of the NSPCC did not know that the parental responsibility provision in Scotland "has proved particularly useful, other than as a marker for what appropriate parental behaviour is".[45] There is, however, evidence that parent training programmes can be effective in tackling neglect.[46] Mr Noyes suggested that this should start at school and continue through into early help programmes.[47] Sue Woolmore, Chair of the Independent Chairs of LSCB Network, said: "if I had a magic wand, I would use it to help children and young people start understanding what being a parent is about and what the needs of young children are".[48] Professor Munro also considered that the available money should be targeted on helping parents improve their parenting skills.[49] It would seem likely that a statutory provision relating to positive parenting would achieve rather less than an active programme teaching parents what it means.

50. We have seen no convincing evidence that the civil definition of neglect, as set out in the Children Act 1989 and interpreted by the statutory Working Together guidance, is insufficient. Nor are we persuaded that age-specific definitions are workable or desirable. Although there are clearly different considerations in determining whether a young child or a teenager is suffering from neglect, we consider that there are more effective ways of tackling awareness and taking action for this latter group as we argue later in this report. We see no reason, therefore, to review the civil definition at this time and we welcome the repetition of the definition in the new Managing individual cases document.

The long-term consequences of neglect

51. There is overwhelming academic and research evidence of the long-term damage of neglect,[50] echoed in written submissions to our inquiry. The NSPCC has set out some of the known effects on children's development:    

Apart from being potentially fatal, neglect causes great distress to children and is believed to lead to poor outcomes in the short- and long-term. Possible consequences include an array of health and mental health problems, difficulties in forming attachment and relationships, lower educational achievements, an increased risk of substance misuse, higher risk of experiencing abuse as well as difficulties in assuming parenting responsibilities later on in life (Taylor & Bridge 2005). Glaser's (2000) review of work carried out in the fields of neuro-biology and developmental psychology showed that emotional neglect can have adverse effects on the development of a child's brain. A longitudinal study on children whose mothers were neglectful and emotionally unavailable indicated that children grew up to be socially withdrawn, inattentive and cognitively underachieving in their elementary-school years (Erickson & Egeland 1996).[51]

52. The RCPCH told us: "We know that neglect damages children's development and has neurobiological consequences and we know that the effects of neglect are cumulative and pervasive. Early recognition is necessary to avoid long term damage. The risk of fatalities is high and may be as high as other forms of abuse. Neglect also causes children to have low self esteem, feel isolated, disengaged and socially disconnected. Adolescent neglect is also widespread and can be linked to suicide and death or serious injury from risk-taking behaviour."[52] The National Association of Head Teachers described the long term effects of neglect as just as "catastrophic for children and young people as other forms of abuse" and highlighted the impact upon education as well as wider behaviour such as chaotic drug and alcohol use, violence, criminal behaviours, early sexualisation and vulnerability to exploitation".[53]

The scale of neglect

53. Department for Education statistics show neglect was the most common reason for children to become subject to a child protection plan, accounting for almost 43% of cases (to March 2011). A major prevalence study of child abuse and neglect, published by the NSPCC last year, found neglect to be the most prevalent type of maltreatment in the family for all age groups: 5% of under 11s, 13.3% of 11-17 year olds and 16% of 18-24 year olds had been neglected at some point in their childhoods. Severe neglect was experienced by 3.7% of under 11s, 9.8% of 11-17 year olds and 9% of 18-24 year olds at some time during childhood.[54] This was reflected in Action for Children research which showed that up to 10% children suffering neglect.[55] Action for Children also found that the majority of professionals have come into contact with children who have experienced neglect, including 81% of primary school staff, 69% of health professionals and 67% of pre-school/nursery staff.[56] Neglect is the most common feature in all Serious Case Reviews (Ofsted); and the most common concern for adults contacting NSPCC.[57] Social work involvement in cases of neglect was vividly portrayed in the 2012 BBC television series Protecting Our Children.

54. However, these figures may not give an accurate picture of the scale of neglect. Often neglect is the main issue and the one recorded for a child protection plan, but neglect rarely occurs in isolation and there are usually other abuses occurring concurrently. It is also easy to use neglect as a 'catch-all' category for maltreatment which does not easily fit another category.[58] As the Minister told us, "there is a whole host of dynamics going on within a family and it just happens that neglect appears to be the most appropriate tag to put on a child, but there may be some physical abuse that is lurking behind it as well".[59] These variations and uncertainties are borne out in the very variable rates of neglect reported by different local authorities: statistics for children who were the subject of a child protection plan in the year ending 31 March 2009 show that the proportion varied from one quarter of all cases to over two thirds.[60] This means that it is difficult to be certain of prevalence. It is likely that quite different incidents and patterns of maltreatment are being classified as neglect in different areas. We recommend that the Government commission research to investigate whether similar situations and behaviours are being classified as neglect in different local authorities.

55. There is also reason to believe that the recent increase in cases may not reflect a real change in the prevalence of neglect amongst families. Both academic and charity witnesses suggested that the rise over several years in the number of children starting on child protection plan for neglect may suggest that the system is getting better at recognising and acting on neglect, rather than an increase in prevalence.[61] The Minister agreed.[62]

56. We heard concern that the incidence of neglect may be expected to rise as a result of the current economic climate. Professor Ward told us that the numbers "are likely to increase with increased unemployment, with the number of negative factors that are likely to occur as a result of the economic situation", although she counterbalanced this with the observation that "there is evidence to suggest that when times are bad, in fact referrals decrease because as a population we become more accepting of low standards".[63] In her progress report Professor Munro noted that "although parents on low incomes can provide excellent care, it is well established that poverty correlates with neglect in particular and so there might be an increase in referrals because of this".[64]

57. The Minister readily accepted that "it is no great science to suggest that economic pressures at the moment are not making it easier for domestic situations, and that there is a greater likelihood that that stress and frustration might manifest themselves in all forms of abuse within that family, including neglect of the children themselves".[65] He added that he "would like to see some empirical evidence to show whether or not benefit changes are going to have an impact on that", and suggested that evidence of the impact of the economic situation and Government legislation was information which could be gathered and passed on by LSCBs

Neglecting neglect

58. Given the seriousness of the long-term consequences of neglect, the impact of a delay in intervention where there is evidence of neglect is very high indeed. Yet the NSPCC has claimed that "neglect has been neglected" and identified neglect as one of its seven priority areas for action between now and 2016.[66] Evidence strongly suggested that professionals are often uncertain in identifying neglect, and lack the confidence needed to intervene until neglect reaches unacceptable levels. Academic witnesses spoke of strings of "quite shocking examples of practices that have gone on for years and years before something happened" and suggested several possible reasons for this.[67] Professor Ward pointed out that "the problem is that pretty well all parents neglect their children up to a certain point. What we do not really understand is the point at which it becomes unacceptable and the point at which it will have long-term adverse consequences".[68] Another academic expert, Dr Brandon, argued that "because often the families where there is neglect are very complicated, difficult and confusing for practitioners, they can overwhelm individuals working with families, so they fail to see what is in front of them".[69] Other witnesses pointed to cultural difficulties in defining neglect and the added complication of identifying neglect in families living in poverty.[70] The neglect of older children in particular has been poorly understood.

59. NSPCC research in 2010 concluded that social workers were failing to respond adequately when they came across children who were showing signs of neglect. The research analysed a sample of 50 serious case reviews in which neglect had been found at some point in the lives of those who had died, and found that the average length of time between concern of neglect first being raised and the child's death was 13 months. The NSPCC called for an overhaul of guidance to social workers, arguing that, at present, they are encouraged to adopt an approach of "waiting for neglect to persist" before intervening.[71]

60. There was general agreement that a failure to act on neglect was often the result of a system which looked for "a trigger" for action and that assessment procedures have given undue weight to incidents of abuse at the expense of patterns of neglect. The inability of the system to respond to patterns rather than incidents is also highlighted by Munro.[72] Yet, as Professor Ward and Rebecca Brown at Loughborough University pointed out, neglect is a "chronic, corrosive condition which may deteriorate over a long period without reaching a specific crisis, such as a baby being locked up alone overnight or abandoned in a shop, that might prompt specific action".[73] Research by the University into infants suffering harm over time also identified the difficulties faced by professionals in balancing support for the family unit and protecting the children, concluding that:

Almost all professionals did everything they could to keep families together. Parents were given repeated opportunities to prove they could look after a child [...] However, in the drive to ensure that parents' rights were properly respected, children's needs could be overlooked. This was particularly true for the many children who suffered from long-term, chronic neglect while professionals waited for parents to overcome their difficulties and provide them with 'good enough' care. A number of these were younger siblings of children who had already been removed.[74]

Furthermore, Professor Ward's submission also noted that "practitioners who work with extremely disadvantaged families can become inured to the evidence of neglect because they see so much of it".[75]

61. Such evidence suggests that children are left in neglectful situations too long after they have come to the attention of professionals. The Magistrates' Association told us that "magistrates are faced on many occasions with cases of neglect where there has been an extensive chronology of a referral being made, some work being done then the case being closed and for this pattern to repeat itself several times over a period of years and eventually for care proceedings to be sought".[76] The recent Family Justice Review also concluded that "evidence suggests that local authorities can wait too long before they start proceedings and are not always sufficiently focused on children's timescales, underestimating the impact of long term neglect and emotional abuse".[77] The review called for the revised Working Together guidance to "emphasise the importance of the child's timescales and the appropriate use of proceedings in planning for children and in structured child protection activities".[78] We note that instead the timescales for assessment are being removed entirely from the revised Working Together.

62. There is reason for cautious optimism that these difficulties may be in the process of being addressed. The increase in child protection plans for neglect may indicate a change in the trend to earlier recognition and intervention. This is supported by the recent Cafcass study comparing care applications in November 2011 with those in the same period in 2008 which concluded that:

There is a greater prevalence of neglect in this sample than the 2009 study, and the children subject to Child Protection Plans (under the category of neglect) have been known to local authorities for less time than was previously the case. This would suggest that neglect is now being acted upon more quickly, and applications in which neglect is a feature are being made at an earlier stage than was the case three or more years ago.[79]

63. Several witnesses suggested that a greater understanding of child development would help professionals recognise neglect and therefore take action to tackle it more effectively. The current deficit in understanding was commonly traced to training for social workers. For example, academics from Loughborough and York told us that "social work training has focused on skills for too long [...] there is a lot of evidence that the knowledge base needs to be improved" and that "the evidence suggests that social workers are not learning enough about childhood development. They do not have some of the factual information at their fingertips that would enable them to make better judgments".[80] The Children's Society and Barnardo's agreed that "training and professional development [of social workers] could be substantially improved" in relation to child development, emotional, intellectual and behavioural developments, and how parental behaviour impacts on those.[81] Kate Wallace added that "training [...] particularly in terms of development, attachment and the impact of neglect" should be a key area for the College of Social Work to focus on.[82]

64. This argument has been accepted by other reviews of the profession. For example, the Munro review argued that the professional capabilities being developed for child and family social work must include knowledge of child development and attachment and knowledge of the impact of child abuse and neglect on children in both the short and long term and into adulthood.[83] Dame Moira Gibb, who chaired the Social Work Reform Board, acknowledged that "There has been less focus than necessary on child development" in social worker training.[84] We were told that child development is currently included in some social work training but not all.[85]

65. The new curriculum being developed by the College of Social Work will emphasise child development, but a consistent approach is needed across all teaching institutions. An understanding of the long-term developmental consequences of neglect and the urgency of early intervention should be built into child protection training and guidance for all front-line professionals, including those in health and education. This would mean a strong focus, both in initial training and in continuing professional development (CPD) courses, on normal child development, in terms of emotional, intellectual, behavioural and physical development, and the impact upon it of parental behaviour, including neglect. The training should extend to the developmental impact of neglect on adolescents and the potential long-term effects for this group of children. It would be highly advantageous for CPD in this area to be offered to professionals from different disciplines training together, and we call on the Government and the College of Social Work to take this forward.

66. In common with all our witnesses and previous reviews, we are concerned that the system—and to some extent professional practice—has been geared to recognising emergency incidents, rather than more enduring patterns, of maltreatment and that this has contributed to children being left in neglectful situations too long, with social workers waiting for a 'trigger' incident to intervene. We welcome the steps that are being taken to alter this situation. We believe that the needs of children and the importance of acting quickly to secure early intervention for children are all too often not given enough priority. Securing positive outcomes and meeting the needs of the child should come before all other considerations. There needs to be a continued shift in culture so that there is earlier protection and safeguarding of the long-term needs of the child.

67. We recommend that Cafcass continue to monitor the responsiveness of local authorities to neglect through the timeliness and quality of care applications. If there are signs that improvement is not being sustained, the Government must be prepared to act to ensure that local authorities respond promptly in cases of neglect.

Domestic violence and neglect

68. As with other forms of abuse, domestic violence, mental health problems and drug and alcohol abuse are major risk factors for neglect.[86] The recent Cafcass study found that in the cases which led to care applications between 11 and 30 November 2011 "a parent had been the victim of domestic violence in 60.1% of cases and the perpetrator of domestic violence in 40.3% of cases".[87]

69. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of local authorities semi-automatically classify children as 'neglected' when there is domestic violence in the household, categorising the non-abusive parent's (usually the mother's) 'failure to protect' a child from witnessing domestic violence as a form of emotional harm. This interpretation has been challenged for blaming the abused parent (usually mother), themselves at significant risk, rather than tackling the abuser. More generally, mothers experiencing domestic violence are often blamed for 'failing to protect' their children, and children taken away, despite evidence that they are able to be adequate parents if supported properly.[88] John Hemming MP pointed to "a great fear among women about reporting domestic violence, because they feel that they will lose their children if they report domestic violence".[89] This is despite current domestic violence policy suggesting that the emotional harm arising to a child witnessing domestic violence can be best mitigated by supporting the non-abusive parent.[90]

70. Evidence from domestic violence charities also highlighted the conflicting messages sent by the courts regarding the safety of children and of women. Asked about the conflict between child contact and domestic violence policies, Joanna Sharpen from Against Violence and Abuse (AVA) told us:

Unfortunately they are not very well co-ordinated. We know that domestic violence is present in two thirds of all serious case reviews into child deaths or serious injury, and we know of children who are killed or seriously abused during contact visits [...] often a woman will leave for the sake of protecting her children, and then she is put in the impossible position where the courts are saying, "But the children must have contact with this man who is too dangerous to live with". What kind of message is that giving her?[91]

71. Women's Aid proposed that "Where domestic violence is identified as a factor in neglect cases, the mother and her children should both receive support and referral to specialist support services to address the domestic violence".[92] The Minister agreed that "I would be very cautious about the victims of domestic violence being labelled as neglectful of their children as well" and cited examples of good practice where "a very experienced domestic violence specialist social worker" had possessed "the knowledge and experience as to how to deal with a difficult domestic violence situation where, clearly, the victim parent needed some serious support and did not need to be labelled".[93]

72. In cases of domestic violence, there should be no presumption that an abused parent cannot be a good parent. Wherever possible, the focus should be on supporting that parent and helping them to protect their children themselves, rather than on removing the children. But the interests of the children must come first. Guidance and specialised training in this sensitive area should be reviewed and updated and highlighted to all social workers. The Department for Education must liaise more closely with the Home Office on issues relating to child protection and domestic abuse.

26   Q 63 Back

27   Q411 (Phillip Noyes) Back

28   Ibid Back

29   Children and Young Persons Act 1933, s.1 Back

30   Action for Children, Keeping Children Safe: the case for reforming the law on child neglect (2012) Back

31   Ibid Back

32   See for example responses from NSPCC, the Children's Society and Barnardo's, Q417 Back

33   Ev 190 Back

34   Ev 259 Back

35   Q715 Back

36   Q766 Back

37   Q 849 Back

38   Ibid Back

39   Qq 411, 413 Back

40   Q413 Back

41   Q 413 [Phillip Noyes] Back

42   Q413 [Enver Solomon] Back

43   Q 414 Back

44   Ev 228 Back

45   Q 415 Back

46   Q86 [Professor Biehal] Back

47   Q416 [Phillip Noyes] Back

48   Q589 Back

49   Q742 [Professor Munro] Back

50   See, for example, Studies in Safeguarding across services (2011) and Action for Children research (2012)  Back

51   NSPCC, child protection research briefing: neglect, p.10 Back

52   Ev 222 Back

53   Ev w198 Back

54   NSPCC, Child abuse and neglects in the UK today, (September 2011), p.43:  Back

55   Action for Children (2009), Child neglect: Experiences from the frontline Back

56   Ibid Back

57   NSPCC, as above Back

58   See, for example, analysis of neglect by Professor Elaine Farmer for the DfE Back

59   Q848 [Tim Loughton] Back

60 Back

61   Q64 [Dr Brandon]; Q 411 [Phillip Noyes, NSPCC] Back

62   Q841 Back

63   Q64 [Professor Ward] Back

64   Munro Progress Report, paragraph 3.14  Back

65   Q801 [Tim Loughton] Back

66   NSPCC, Back

67   Q63 Back

68   Q 63 [Professor Ward] Back

69   Q63 [Dr Brandon] Back

70   For example, Ev w38 [Family Rights Group] Back

71   NSPCC, January 2010 Back

72   Munro Progress Report; Q715 Back

73   Ev 178 Back

74   Loughborough (2010), Infants suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm: a longitudinal study, p.4 Back

75   Ev 178 Back

76   Ev w84 Back

77   Family Justice Review: Final Report, p15 Back

78   Ibid Back

79   Three weeks in November ... three years on ... Cafcass care application study 2012, p.ii  Back

80   Q86 [Professor Ward} Back

81   Q436 [Enver Solomon] Back

82   Q436 [Kate Wallace] Back

83   Munro Review, para 6.41 Back

84   Q680 [Dame Moira Gibb] Back

85   Ev w167, w66 Back

86   Barnardo's (Q415ff) Back

87   Three weeks in November ... three years on, p.21 Back

88   Q425 {Kate Wallace]; Q273 [Joanna Sharpen] Back

89   Q380 [John Hemming] Back

90   Ibid., pp.5-6 Back

91   Q273 Back

92   Ev 179 Back

93   Q851 Back

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Prepared 7 November 2012