Child protection and Disability

Child protection isn’t just about investigation and interruption of abuse. It isn’t just about working with individuals and families chronically locked into patterns of neglect. It’s not all about communication between agencies or even empowering children and giving them a voice where they had none before. It’s not just about being some kind of social police force or therapeutic rescue service. It’s all of these and so much more and it’s conducted by social workers and others in an atmosphere of bureaucratic, frustrating, challenging, under resourced complexity where ideals can quickly fade. The task is given to those who society charges to assess, intervene, make safe and orchestrate a healing process.

In the main we have a child protection work force of dedicated people whose true value is often down played by the public and the media, but whose potential value could be more clearly recognised if there was more emphasis on their job training, their status in society and the demystification of what they can and cannot do. The difficulties faced by those charged with assessing risk are legion. There are so many areas where the whole of the community could assist and so many myths that need to be exploded.

One area I was heavily involved with for some time was the protection of disabled children and their families and, as you can imagine, it’s sometimes so much more difficult to listen to a child who has no clear and obvious voice. Even when the prosecuting authorities could be persuaded to take the matter to court the chances of a child without standard communication receiving justice was much less than what could be considered reasonable. There’s always been hesitancy in challenging some parenting practices and most people’s perceptions of disabled children imagine long suffering and dedicated parents. Trying to balance fairness and objectivity and look past this to see if any of the signs and symptoms of abuse were present set a very heavy challenge to social workers and others because it was only natural that one felt sympathy for families where they had to live with the consequences of children who had severe impairments.

Interestingly, some years ago, I listened to a report by Professor Dick Sobsey who was the director of J P Das developmental disability centre at the University of Alberta in Canada. He studied the relationship between violence and disability and the changes that occur in families with disabled children, he looked at the ethical and human rights issues as well as the environment where abuse occurred. His research showed (and I believe it’s still the case) that disabled children are up to 3 times as likely to be abused and risks are increased across the board – especially in children with behavioural, language or learning difficulties. They are easier targets for those inclined to hurt them. It could be communication issues, reduced capacity to resist and being more easily bullied or intimidated. Sometimes there was a fear of complaining in case support would stop and often those brought in to help with intimate care on a voluntary basis had taken advantage.

This is an area that to my mind has not received the attention that the statistics deserve, there are some excellent charities and many in the statutory sector who are dedicated to working with this group of young people but much more is needed to protect our fellow citizens who just happen to have an impairment.


Please find Part 2 about child protection and disability here as there is so much more to discuss

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