“One thing tipped it over the edge; made us realise that it was more than we thought it was.”– John Stephens

Child neglect is complex. There can be many underlying causes such as poverty, mental health, and access to health care. It’s about being curious during that first response, which then helps us know where to go next for the most appropriate help.

Want to know more on managing neglect and children’s safeguarding, but not sure where to look? Below you will find some insights from a Twitter Space hosted by Helen Woodward (Coach, Consultant & Advisor at Zen Educate) with speakers John Stephens and Rafik Iddin.

John Stephens is the CEO of Bright Futures Educational Trust, a multi academy schools trust based in the northwest comprising 12 primary, secondary, and special schools. He is also a volunteer regional safeguarding manager for St. John Ambulance.

Rafik Iddin is an Independent Safeguarding and Social Work Consultant who leads independent reviews, serious case reviews and domestic homicide reviews. He chairs a fostering panel for an independent fostering agency..

The Twitter space covered safeguarding, more specifically in relation to the coming winter months, and to childhood neglect.

1. So what is neglect?

The definition of neglect from Keeping Children Safe in Education 2022 states:

Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and or psychological needs, likely to result in a serious impairment of the child’s health or development. So it may involve a parent or carer failing to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter, including exclusion from home or abandonment. Failing to protect a child from physical and/or emotional harm or danger, failing to ensure adequate supervision including the use of inadequate caregivers, failing to ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment, and being responsive to a child’s basic emotional needs. It may actually also occur during pregnancy, for example, as a result of maternal substance abuse.

2. How can the Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) and staff work to make sure everyone is alert to the potential signs of neglect?

Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibiity. Whether you are a DSL, part of the pastoral care team or stepping in if team members are unwell. It’s about:

  • Seeing yourself as having care and responsibility for children, young people, families and communities
  • Ensuring everybody is working well as a team to make sure children and families are safe and well-supported
  • Taking a positive, supportive and non-judgmental approach to families and children
  • Having a good understanding of concerns
  • Forming really good relationships

All these points collectively enable us to make a strength-based assessment of what’s happening in the family. It is important to find ways which are non-judgmental, and make it known how we can help, what we can signpost to, and who else we can get involved (with consent).

3. Taking a child-centred approach

It can be easy not to notice an escalation or a significant change, because we become used to behaviour with a particular child or family and think it’s ‘the way that family is’. Children may present some signs of neglect, but it’s actually about asking: What is going on in this family? What is there in this context that’s positive on which we can build? What can we use to develop and garner trust?

It is important to be tenacious, keen and curious to find out what’s going on in families; to have a professional curiosity. It is also about being kind, gentle, non-critical and leaving space to ask questions and find out more about the children that you’re working with. It sounds so obvious sometimes, but it’s about taking the time to find out what’s happening in children’s lives.

Through best practice, the quality of professional relationships – and the trust that comes with them – we want to create the conditions for children and families to thrive. It’s important for families to have clarity on what’s required of them. So, if there’s an intervention, families, parents and carers know what to expect, and what’s expected of them.

4. How can we comprehend what we’re seeing and recognise ‘neglect’?

Seeing children consistently and regularly is important to determining if they are safe and their needs are being met. Listening to how they communicate can help with this. This might not necessarily be their voice (they may have language and communication difficulties) but about identifying what children are telling us in their own ways.

Some of the things to look out for, and this by no means is an exhaustive list, are:

  • A significant or inexplicable change within the family that isn’t being expressed in words
  • An observable deterioration such as an outgoing, lively young person becoming very withdrawn
  • Lashing out
  • Something that seems to be going the wrong way despite support that’s being given
  • Poor attendance at school
  • Changes around mood and engagement
  • Attitudes to food and nutrition
  • Inadequate or ill-fitted clothing
  • Difference between siblings in the same family

Neglect is never just a one-off. It’s always about that longer term picture, care and support. It is not just about addressing the present issue that day or week, but about reviewing what we know over a longer period of time. It’s about seeing - is this a situation that’s improving or already getting worse? What are those attitudes? What other factors do we know about this child’s mental health and well being? It is about children’s lives that continue before and after the event.

5. What has stopped people from recognising the seriousness of safeguarding concerns and passing them on?

Some key factors that make people hesitate are:

  • Lack of confidence
  • Fear and anxiety around what might happen if we make a referral
  • Not noticing or thinking about what’s taking place before us
  • Positively reframing things that might not be positive

6. Once you’ve made the referral, should you follow up if you don’t get the response that you need?

Keep in mind that addressing neglect is crucial for the safety of children. If there is no follow-up, it’s important to be persistent on behalf of the children and of the family. To be able to have difficult conversations, you need to build trust through invaluable professional relationships. That way it will be easier to pick up the phone, talk to people and – if necessary – escalate the issue.

Interested in learning more? Listen to the full Twitter Space here: