Seeing the Child

13/06/2016 15:30 | Updated 13 June 2016

Like many others, I was shocked to hear how an 11-year-old disabled girl had been handcuffed by the police, had a hood placed over her head, and then been held in custody without support for around 60 hours. This is a horribly chilling story and, even though it happened four years ago, one that forces us to ask whether all parts of the criminal justice system understand vulnerable children.

When children are let down by professionals or the system the common theme is that professionals forget that there is a person in front of them with complex needs. Often, challenging behaviour is a symptom of deep-rooted issues such as abuse, neglect, mental ill-health or learning disability and the wrong response can easily make matters worse.

You don't need to look too hard to see what can happen when children become invisible or aren't listened to, when their personal needs are taken into account. In countless serious case reviews when children have died or been seriously injured there are often multiple opportunities missed to probe a little deeper, ask a child what is happening to them, hear what is going on at home. Think of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal, where for years the victims were treated by a host of frontline staff as 'problem' or 'difficult' children. Few saw beyond the chaotic and challenging behaviour to ask what lay behind it. Just as few listened to the vulnerable children targeted by Jimmy Savile.

All too often I hear from children in local authority care who feel their feelings and thoughts aren't being taken into account when important and life-changing decisions - about foster care or residential placements or their schooling - are made about them. Sadly, for children who have been through so much, who have already often had their family lives shattered through abuse or neglect what comes next is a revolving door of foster placements, school moves, and frequently changing social workers. Meanwhile, children who ask for help to deal with emotional and mental health difficulties can be rejected by local services which are buckling under the pressure of the increased referrals from GPs and others.

Last week I gave evidence on Childline's impact at a seminar to mark its 30-year anniversary. In the 1980s the notion that a child would pick up a phone and talk to someone about their problems to a strange adult seemed far-fetched. Thankfully, now that we have a greater understanding of some of the issues that children face, there is wider acknowledgement that Childline is an essential part of the support framework in place for children.

But I still hear of far too many situations in which children are not consulted or listened or where needed, or provided with an advocate to speak on their behalf. I also still hear about far too many whose needs were missed or overlooked - and also there are the ones who don't receive help because their challenging behaviour means that professionals find it difficult to engage them.

All these children need our help. We need to listen to each and every one of them and where they cannot speak or are unable to voice their concerns, make sure we have in place mechanisms and techniques to enable them to do so. It is essential that all children are heard. The system must never forget that the person in front of them is not an adversary or an obstacle. The person in front of them is a child.