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Child protection system failing up to 1.5 million UK children, children’s charity warns

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A child holding and adult's hand Nine out of ten teachers, police officers and social workers are regularly coming into contact with children they suspect are suffering from neglect[i] yet as many as 40 per cent feel powerless to intervene[ii], according to a major report by the University of Stirling for children’s charity Action for Children.

Published today (6February), The State of Child Neglect in the UK reveals that members of the public calling for more support to report rising concerns has almost doubled in the past three years[iii] - with studies suggesting up to 10 per cent of UK children (almost 1.5 million[iv]) face the daily reality of neglect.

The study was led by Brigid Daniel, Professor of Social Work at the University of Stirling and academic advisor to Scotland’s centre for child protection WithScotland[1].

Professor Daniel said: “Professionals are offering neglected children and their families considerable levels of support. However, there is always more that can be done to offer help earlier to the many children who tend to slip under the radar. We need greater interdisciplinary working to tackle the high levels of children experiencing neglect in the UK. For example in Scotland where there are particularly high levels of parental substance abuse, the government’s Getting it Right for Every Child initiative offers a real opportunity to help and support to children and their families at an early stage.”

Today’s report is the most comprehensive current review into child neglect, the second in an annual series by the University of Stirling for Action for Children. Almost 6,000 people including the general public, a range of professionals and 27 local authorities took part in the research through interviews, polls and focus groups[v].

Dame Clare Tickell, Chief Executive for Action for Children, said:

“It is of grave concern that one in every ten children could be suffering neglect. We know that early help has the potential to transform the lives of children and families, yet today’s report tells us that the public aren’t being given the know-how they need and professionals’ best efforts are being hindered by stretched budgets and a lack of resources. With more and more families struggling, vulnerable children are falling through the cracks of a child protection system that is failing some of those who need it most – sometimes with tragic consequences.”

Other key findings from The State of Child Neglect in the UK include:

  • 14 per cent of professionals reported a rise in suspected child neglect over the past 12 months
  • Of these, many believe deterioration in parenting skills (70 per cent), greater poverty (66 per cent) and more family breakdowns (55 per cent) are contributing factors to the increase in neglect
  • Half of professionals feel there are barriers which make it difficult to intervene in suspected cases of neglect, in particular because of a lack of available services and resources like time and staffing
  • A third of the general public who had concerns about a child did not tell anyone, mainly because they did not think they had enough evidence or were uncertain it was neglect[vi]

Neglect is a factor in 60 per cent of child deaths or serious injuries, investigated by Serious Case Reviews. Research shows it is vital to provide vulnerable families with support at an early stage so that they can change their behaviour and prevent neglect[vii]. Yet Government commitment to early help services is inconsistently translated into practice, with only piecemeal delivery in some local areas.

The charity’s report found that just 12 per cent of staff in early help services, such as health visitors and teaching assistants, are able to respond directly if they suspect a child is being neglected and many frontline professionals (29 per cent) believe their ability to intervene will become even more difficult as spending cuts continue.

Co-Chair of The College of Social Work, Professor Corinne May-Chahal, said:

“This report reaffirms the need for adequately funded universal early help services to support parents in crisis who may be struggling to care for their children. Targeted early help in suspected cases of child neglect can enable parents to resolve problems at an early stage, without the need for further intervention, providing outcomes which are clearly in the best interests of children. However The College is increasingly concerned that a reduction in funding for preventative services will put increasing pressure on social workers’ ability to source the support that many families need.”

In response to public demand[viii] and the report's findings, Action for Children is calling on the UK Government to:

  • Introduce a web-portal with a postcode function to enable the public to seek the most appropriate help, at the earliest opportunity, for children they are worried about in their local area
  • Meet its commitment to early help and put measures in place that support professionals to make timely decisions, meaning neglected children receive effective support across all levels of need from the identification of suspected cases to chronic neglect

[1] WithScotland is a national resource for the benefit of everyone in Scotland involved in protecting children.
For more information see:

[i] 91 per cent of professionals are seeing children who they believe are being neglected, with 12 per cent of these coming into contact with suspected cases of child neglect on a weekly basis

[ii] Many professionals, including two-fifths of primary school teachers and over a third of police officers and social workers, reported feeling powerless to intervene in suspected child neglect cases

[iii] The numbers of people claiming that they need more information about who to contact for help for a child they think is being neglected has risen from 23 per cent in 2009 to 44 per cent in 2012

[iv] Figure based on most recent census data for Population and Household, which places the number of UK children aged 0 – 19 years old at 14.617 million

[v] Between June and October 2012 evidence was gathered from the general public and professionals by YouGov and the University of Stirling in a range of ways:

  • A survey was undertaken in 27 local authorities (boards in Northern Ireland) across the UK
  • 12 in-depth, on-site multi-agency focus groups were undertaken in three areas across the UK
  • A total of 3,263 adults in the general public responded to a YouGov poll
  • 2,153 professionals responded to a YouGov poll (1,248 primary school staff, 181 pre-school/nursery staff and 379 health professionals)
  • 196 social workers and 200 police officers were interviewed
  • The findings from 2012 were compared with similar polls commissioned by Action for Children in 2009 and 2011 to see if there had been any changes
  • Published statistics from across the UK and internationally were collated
  • Policy developments from across the four nations of the UK were analysed

[vi] For a full breakdown of reasons why the members of the public did not tell someone about their concerns for a child’s welfare, please contact Action for Children’s media team for a copy of The State of Child Neglect in the UK (2012) report

[vii] University of Salford (2012) four-year longitudinal evaluation of the Action for Children UK Neglect Project. Available via:

[viii] 52 per cent of the UK public, if they suspected a case of child neglect, would want information and instruction from a Government website

Notes to Editors

  • Child neglect is an ongoing failure to provide the right care and attention to a child's needs, ranging from obvious physical signs such as being severely under or over weight to being ignored when distressed. For some, child neglect can result in death, either through starvation or due to accidents because of a lack of supervision.
  • The State of Child Neglect in the UK will be launched at 9:30am on Wednesday, 6 February at a meeting of the Child Protection APPG in the House of Commons. Children and Families Minister Edward Timpson MP will also speak at this meeting, outlining the progress that the UK Government is making in this area.
  • At 12:30 on Wednesday, 6 February Action for Children is hosting a live discussion on Twitter about the scale and impact of child neglect in the UK. If you would like to ask a question or participate, please follow @AfC_Policy or #stateofneglect
  • For a copy of The State of Child Neglect in the UK (2012/13) or a full copy of The University of Stirling’s report, please contact Action for Children’s Media Team on 020 3124 0667 or (out of hours) 07802 806679 or at

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