As a fresh faced social worker some thirty years ago I was sent to collect two children for a week's holiday organised by social services. When I first saw them I was shocked, they looked like they had come straight out of Dickens. During that week it became clear that they weren't fed enough, cared for enough or loved enough, and subsequently they were taken into care. But knowing when and how best to intervene is not easy.
Current structures are not well organised to locate children like these, nor provide essential early help. As re-organisation follows re-organisation, and with reduced budgets, the inevitable step is to focus on the most urgent situations. But this means that the one in ten children who suffer neglect in the UK today are basically ignored until it's too late. Neglect is the most frequent reason for a child protection referral and features in 60% of serious case reviews into the death or serious injury of a child.
Today, Action for Children launch 'Child neglect: The scandal that never breaks'. It's an important report, based on a comprehensive analysis of responses to neglect in England over six years, and includes conversations with 18,000 children, professionals and members of the public. It calls on government to produce a national strategy on child neglect in England, and identifies some practical measures to challenge indecision and delay that so sadly marks out responses to the issue.
The problem is not that neglect is hidden from view. In fact Action for Children show that both professionals and the general public get better at identifying the problem every year, while 73% of children know another child who suffers from neglect. Yet the professionals most qualified to tackle the UK's most common form of abuse are also the ones who are most frustrated they cannot help - 43% of social workers feel powerless to help.
Not enough progress has been made since the government-commissioned Munro Review of Child Protection, which outlined ways in which local and national systems could keep children safe more effectively. Action for Children's report echoes Munro's call for an 'early help duty' on local authorities to secure sufficient provision for vulnerable children, allowing professionals to act as quickly so that fewer cases reached crisis point.
One problem is that there are inadequate systems for collating accurate figures on child neglect. Current systems for data collection fail to represent the true scale of the problem. Action for Children have pressed that all children's centres should have birth data for children in their local area.
The report also calls for local safeguarding children boards to collect information on child neglect with which to inform a child neglect plan. Spending cuts are putting a strain on resources, but more can be done to ensure local areas can make the best use of what is available. The Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group, which I chair, is looking at this issue today, examining the role of these boards and their scrutiny of the local child protection system.
Children have to receive the early help and support they need, but progress in identifying and helping the vulnerable remains patchy. Yet the impact of neglect on children's overall life chances is well known and long lasting. Action for Children believes it's time to draw together all those working for neglected children under a national framework. Tackling the neglect of children is everyone's responsibility, and the issue must get the political attention it deserves.