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Stirling researcher finds social workers feel powerless to intervene in child neglect cases

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A study by University of Stirling Professor Brigid Daniel has found that fifty-one per cent of social workers, and thirty-six per cent of police officers report feeling powerless to intervene in suspected cases of child neglect.

Professor Daniel conducted the survey as part of a comprehensive review into child neglect, the first of a new annual series by the University, for children’s charity Action for Children. The report has been presented to the Westminster Government.

Over 4000 people, including the general public, a range of professionals and 47 local authorities, took part in the research through polling and focus groups.

The study found a worrying picture of neglected children getting trapped in, rather than caught by, the safety net in place to protect them, as teachers, health workers and nursery staff are increasingly aware of child neglect, yet unsure as to what to do.

Forty-two per cent of social workers questioned felt that the point at which they could intervene in cases of child neglect was too high. For those children who did meet the level at which they could intervene, fifty-two per cent of social workers cited a lack of resources and forty-three per cent said a lack of support services to refer families to, were barriers to acting.

The percentage of social workers who say they feel powerless to intervene in cases of child neglect has gone up from a third since 2009. Fifty-two per cent of those surveyed said they have been worried about the welfare or safety of a child they know or who is living in their area.

As well as social workers and police officers, professionals, including primary school teachers and health visitors, have shared with Action for Children their concerns over making referrals, with teachers reporting sleepless nights wondering what they should do in cases of suspected child neglect.

Professor Daniel said: “The review shows that the general public and professionals have concerns about neglected children and they believe that affected children and their families should have access to effective help before their problems become too entrenched.

“There appears to be insufficient help for parents who are struggling with substance misuse, mental health problems and domestic abuse. Neglected children and their families need sustained, empathic support that is offered in the context of a trusting professional relationship.”

Studies suggest that up to ten per cent of all children in the UK have experienced neglect.

Action for Children will be monitoring the scale and impact of UK child neglect and society’s response to the issue on an ongoing basis, reporting back annually on progress made and making key recommendations to the UK government.

Dame Clare Tickell, Chief Executive of Action for Children, said: “Neglect corrodes childhoods, robbing the most vulnerable children of hope, happiness and life chances. All our findings point to the stark reality that neglected children and their parents are being identified, but neither the professionals nor the public feel empowered to help or intervene, particularly at the early stages.

“When it comes to child neglect the reality is, we are only tackling the tip of the iceberg, and there are many thousands out there in desperate need. We are currently missing critical opportunities to help, and putting valued professionals in an impossible position.”

Further findings from Action for Children’s Annual Review of Child Neglect 2011/12, include:
· 81% of professionals that come into contact with children have suspected children of being neglected (compared with 78% in 2009).
· These professionals also stated that the most helpful improvement in tackling child neglect would be if they were able to report less serious suspicions before they became worse (55% of primary school staff, 46% of pre-school and nursery staff and 41% of health professionals).
· 80% of social workers think that cuts to services will make it more difficult to intervene in cases of child neglect.
· 37% of the general public said they would like more information about who to contact if they have a concern about a child who is being neglected. This has gone up from 23% in 2009.

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