Listening must play greater part in protecting children with disabilities writes Dan Parton (22nd August 2012)


Ofsted has just published a report which finds that too many disabled children are not having their child protection needs identified. This should act as a wake-up to local authorities, but the report also highlights the importance – for everyone involved – of listening to the views of children with disabilities.


While Ofsted’s report is often positive – it found many examples of effective multi-agency practice – it’s not acceptable that child protection concerns were not always identified or dealt with early enough. Good practice is evidently out there, but too few authorities reach that benchmark. It seems that best practice is not standard practice and much more needs to be done to disseminate lessons learned and ensure that many more authorities achieve practice of the highest level.


Ofsted’s recommendations to enhance practice, such as ensuring that thresholds for child protection are well understood and rigorously applied by local authorities and local safeguarding children boards at every stage in work with disabled children, are all sensible and should be implemented.


But one thing that struck me from reading through the key findings of the report, and its recommendations, is the need to ensure that the opinions of children with disabilities involved in child protection cases – especially (but not exclusively) those with communication difficulties – are heard.


Ofsted’s report found that the extent to which the views, wishes and feelings of disabled children were captured and recorded varied. While, in many cases, professionals knew the children well and were skilled in communicating with them, and in observing their behaviour to assess how they were feeling, children were not always spoken to directly and specifically about the concerns for their welfare, even when they could communicate well. Advocacy was usually not considered and rarely used.


Surely, in child protection work, children should be spoken to directly, regardless of their communication skills? Whilst talking to a child about any potential abuse can be difficult – disabled or not – there is no reason not to at least try. Obviously, the child is the central concern so his or her insight and feelings should be of paramount concern and all efforts should be made to understand what they are.  Without that, there must be a risk that the best outcome will not be achieved.


To ensure that children’s views are properly understood and represented, external advocacy should be considered, although professionals who work with and know the child well can also be effective advocates, as the report acknowledges.


The personalisation agenda has been pushing the role of advocacy services for some years and they can be an effective method of helping people to speak up, especially those who do not communicate verbally. But advocacy services are still not available in all local authority areas, and that has to change. Even if they would only be used by a small number of people, they still need to be there, and if demand is too low for one authority to act alone, they need to get together with neighbouring authorities, to commission shared services.


As Ofsted’s deputy chief inspector John Goldup said, research suggests that disabled children are more likely to be abused than children without disabilities, so child protection protocols need to be improved – and listening to the child should be at their very heart.