Brigid Daniel is Professor of Social Work at the University of Stirling, and the co-author of a number of books on child care and protection and has a particular interest in factors that help children to cope with adversity; Julie Taylor is Professor of Family Health in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Dundee, and has a significant background in research projects that seek to explore better ways of recognising and responding to child care and protection issues; and Jane Scott currently works freelance on several research and development projects, including the new Multi-Agency Resource Service (MARS) in Scotland, which aims to support practitioners and managers from all organisations working with vulnerable children and families. 

Here they discuss the research that led to their book, Recognizing and Helping the Neglected Child, and some of its findings.

Your new book is a new addition to the Safeguarding Children Across Services. Can you tell us a little more about the Government research initiative that gave rise to the series, and how the idea for the book came about?

The joint UK Government Department of Health/Department for Education Safeguarding Children Research Initiative funded a research programme of 11 studies as a response to the publication of the Victoria Climbié Inquiry Report and was informed by a series of other important policy changes. Child abuse and neglect are societal problems that cut across medical, educational, social service and legal disciplines. The initiative is designed to support both policy and practice cross cutting disciplinary and agency practice. Our study was one of those within the research initiative package.

The initiative is designed to strengthen the evidence base and support the Government’s programme of reform to improve early recognition and cost effective intervention to protect children. It focuses on three key areas:

  1. Recognition of abuse, particularly neglect and emotional abuse, which have received less research attention than other forms of child abuse.
  2. Impact of interventions on outcomes for children, including supportive and rehabilitative efforts.
  3. Inter-agency working involving collaboration between statutory services in health, education and social services with particular attention to the impact of new structural arrangements designed to promote multi-agency/multi-disciplinary collaboration.

Details of the initiative and all 11 studies can be found here.

From the beginning of 2007 until our report in Spring 2009 we undertook a study that addressed the extent to which practitioners are equipped to recognize and respond to the indications that a child’s needs are being neglected. The final brief from our study is published on the Department for Education website, here.

Because we had read so many papers as part of the study, we always knew we would not get it all into a report; further, we wanted it to be read by a wider audience of practitioners than those who might read a rather dry government report. However, turning a report into a book turned out to be a rather bigger job than we first anticipated. So much new had happened since we had completed the study. And a book allowed us to play with a few of the ideas that didn’t get into the report.

Your new book looks at the existing research on how child neglect is identified, and how best to respond to help neglected children. Can you tell us a little about your findings, and whether you encountered any surprises within the research?

Perhaps not surprisingly, but certainly disappointingly, we found there is very little known about how parents and children directly signal their needs for help. We also found that parental characteristics associated with neglect are complex and there are few clear cut pathways. Moreover, neglect interrupts children’s development extremely negatively, to such an extent that signs should be apparent to professionals working with children. More positively, there is plenty of evidence about indirect signals given by both parents and children, and these signals could form the basis for effective intervention.

We did have a few surprises in the research, yes. We were surprised by how few studies had been undertaken with groups such as teachers or pre-school workers or the police. And we were surprised (and perhaps frustrated) by the way researchers can tend to put all sorts of abuse and neglect together. Whilst abuse and neglect do tend to co-occur, the pathways by which they come to attention can be quite different and we could not always untangle that from published reports. And we were surprised by how little is known about how children come to professional attention when neglect is the issue.

As well as summarising the research, the book contains a great deal of advice for those working with children. Are there any key messages that you would be keen for practitioners working with children to take away with them?

We found that health staff, particularly health visitors, are pretty astute when it comes to recognising neglected children. But they struggled sometimes when it came to accessing resources or finding the most appropriate response. So there is some further work that could be done to help them. Social workers tended to focus on responses to referrals and may need help to look beyond that to an overall picture of the child’s development. Other professional groups (such as dentists or nursery nurses or teachers) are well-placed to pick up on signals that a child might be being neglected, but may need more help to recognise this, and to know how to respond. Further, mothers in particular can recognise when they are struggling. Practitioners should not be afraid to ask them how they feel their parenting is going.

Five years have passed since JKP published its last book on this subject, Child Neglect: Practice Issues for Health and Social Care. Do you think that progress been made in addressing the problem of child neglect in the intervening years?

Well recent analyses from serious case reviews shows that the vast majority of cases are concerned with neglect. Further, nearly half of all children in the UK who are in receipt of a child protection plan or are on the child protection register are there because of neglect. This tells us we have some way yet to go. However, there has been a groundswell of interest in the long neglected case of neglect. The government is paying attention (resulting in the 11 studies in the Initiative for example) and major UK charities such as Action for Children and NSPCC have made neglect a direct priority.

What do you think needs to happen for the number of cases of child neglect to be reduced in future?

There is no one thing that is going to solve the intractable problem of neglect overnight. As we argue in the book, a public health approach is likely to have the most impact in reducing the prevalence and incidence of neglect. This means a host of joined up approaches across the spectrum. This will need government and societal commitment to reducing poverty on the one hand, through to specialist neurodevelopment trauma therapy at the other.

Between you, you have written and edited many books in the field of child welfare. Do you have any tips for someone who might be considering writing their first book?

Think about whether you want to write the book, or edit it with contributions from others. Ensure you give great time and energy commitment to it. Don’t underestimate the fiddly bits and pieces like collating references and sending for copyright permissions. Most of all, make sure it is something you really want to do – and enjoy it!

And finally – Stirling University is quoted as being ‘one of the most beautiful campuses in the world’. What is the view like from your office window, and do you enjoy spending time in the surrounding area?

Julie: Biased question – the view from the Royal Mile over Salisbury Crags is pretty special also! And the National University of Lesotho sits in some pretty spectacular mountains…but yes, Stirling is pretty special.

Brigid: Stirling University has indeed the most beautiful campus in the world – I can see a loch with swans on it, rabbits hopping about the grass and all surrounded by lovely hills. If I wasn’t so busy writing books on neglect I would spend more time walking around the lovely grounds.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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