Countless children are suffering from neglect every day, but more can be done to protect them.
New research by Action for Children reveals that most English local authorities do not know how many children in their area are likely to suffer from neglect.
Responses to our recent Freedom of Information request indicated that 60% of authorities surveyed do not have systems in place to understand the scale of the problem, other than collecting statistics on the number of children already receiving help from social services.
This means children who may be suffering or who are at greater risk of neglect, but whose circumstances do not reach an authority's threshold to receive social care support, are less likely to get the help that they need. Instead, their situations can be allowed to deteriorate to become even more desperate or dangerous. It is a tragedy that due to a lack of gathering the right information, children whose lives could be improved are needlessly put at further risk.
Child neglect can be stopped in its tracks. Collecting the right information would enable local areas to build a picture of early warning signs and all the factors we know can increase a child's risk. These can include parental substance abuse, domestic violence in the home and parental mental health issues.
With more information, local authorities can plan services to help families and are also able to determine what support is most effective, helping to develop strategies to tackle child neglect once and for all.
Steps are being made in the right direction, as some local areas are seeking to understand the prevalence of neglect. The government has also made some positive changes to help authorities collect more in-depth data about children who receive help from social services, but this is only part of the picture: we cannot afford to focus only on those children.
Action for Children knows, from 145 years of supporting some of the most vulnerable families in the UK, that helping families early, before they reach a crisis point, can make a huge difference to children. Neglect has far-reaching consequences and can take many forms; it can mean children are left alone in the house, denied proper health care, or are ignored when they're distressed. They are left without the unconditional love and comfort that every child has a right to have. With the right support at an early enough stage, parents can be helped to make positive changes to build the safe and happy environment their children deserve.
This research reminds me of a story from one of our children's centres. Tanya had a very difficult upbringing and from the time she became a parent at 18, was at a complete loss about how to look after her own children. This young woman had had to teach herself to brush her teeth, how to wash and look after herself because her parents never taught her to do so. With this background, she didn't know how to create a stable environment in which children could thrive - her house was filthy and chaotic and she struggled to fulfil her children's needs.
Tanya was neglected as a child, but wanted to do better for her family - that's when she sought help at one of our children's centres. There, staff helped her understand what her family needed and, through support and help with parenting skills, showed her that she had the ability to be a good parent. Tanya didn't want to neglect her children, but she needed the confidence and skills to help her be the best mum she could be.
Tanya's family has had a happy ending, but not everyone is so proactive about seeking help; the Government and local areas need to ensure families don't slip through the net.
We have no time to lose and must step up and do right by these families now. The best place to start is by identifying and providing the support they need early before a downward spiral can take hold.