04:30pm Sunday 12 July 2020

Professionals risk failing to spot abuse if they rely on children talking about it

The report, published today by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, says professionals need to understand the signs of physical and emotional abuse and neglect which children may display, including through their behaviour. Children and young people value talking to professionals, but may not speak directly about abuse.

The research, ‘It takes a lot to build trust’ Recognition and Telling: Developing earlier routes to help for children and young people’ was conducted for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner by UEA with Anglia Ruskin University. It looked at young people’s recognition of abuse and neglect, and of getting help from family, friends and professionals. It found that children face many barriers to recognising they are being abused or neglected, telling someone about it and getting help. These include: not being aware they are being abused until they understand their experiences are different from others; feeling fearful; and blaming themselves. Young people often actively weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of telling, although they may do so because their situation becomes unbearable.

Building relationships with practitioners they can trust helps children to confide more about their experiences. Teachers, social workers, youth workers, and other trusted professionals with whom children come into contact play a vital role in helping children and young people with abuse and neglect. The research found that children value access to trusted practitioners who respond sensitively and show concern, and that they may then begin to talk about underlying problems. Friends can provide emotional support or a much needed distraction but young people sometimes fear that confiding in them may result in gossip or be too much responsibility for friends to bear.

The report includes a framework for understanding recognition, telling and help from a child’s perspective. It recommends promoting discussion of abuse and neglect in the schools and colleges linked to learning about healthy relationships; providing information to young people about what could happen next if they report abuse or neglect; structuring services to maximise the potential to build and sustain lasting trusting relationships between professionals and young people; and considering the impact of cuts to pastoral support and youth services on the most vulnerable young people in the community. 

Lead author Jeanette Cossar, of the Centre for Research on Children and Families at UEA, said:
“It is extremely difficult for young people to recognise abuse and neglect and to tell people who can help them. Young people need others to notice the signs that they are struggling and to respond sensitively, showing that they care about them. This research should give practitioners a renewed sense of the value of building trusting relationships with children and young people. It should alert policy makers to the importance of protecting services so that adults working in schools, youth services and in specialist services can give children and young people the time and attention they need to build that trust.”

Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England said:
“Sadly, far too many children continue to suffer physical and emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of adults and far too many professionals with whom they come into contact, who have a duty to protect them, fail to do so. Children often don’t understand they are being abused. If they are old enough to do so, it takes incredible courage for them to overcome the barriers to talk to someone about it, so those with responsibility for protecting them must take heed of the practical advice and recommendations in this report and improve the way they identify and work with children who may be being abused.”

Jenny Clifton, Principal Policy Officer, Safeguarding said:
“We are all too familiar with adults only feeling able to come forward and talk about abuse and neglect they suffered in childhood, many years after they experienced it and even then, some may never feel able to do so. For many, abuse or neglect is an issue that defines their childhood and which can cause emotional problems throughout their lives. It is essential to talk to children about abuse and neglect where it is suspected but it is important not to rely on children speaking about it. Some may feel able to confide in trusted professionals but crucially most, and especially younger ones, do not recognise abusive situations and report them. They tell us about abuse in other ways such as through their behaviour, so seeing and being with children and understanding their actions and offering support are all vital. Professionals must spot the signs early and act on them appropriately. Failure to do so! can result in a child experiencing serious physical and emotional harm for the rest of their lives.”

Anabel Acheampong, Young Researcher, Anglia Ruskin University said:
“Being part of the recognition and telling study has been an eye-opening experience for me. Not only because it was my first time doing research but knowing that I will help or even saves the lives of children and young people has been a great and interesting experience for me”.

University of East Anglia – Communications Office
Tel: (+44) (0) 1603 593496 Fax: (+44) (0) 1603 259883

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