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Podcast: preventing the sexual abuse of disabled children

Last updated: 11 Nov 2019 Topics: Podcast

Hear about our study into protecting children and young people from sexual abuse

This week we’re focusing on ways to safeguard children and young people with disabilities.

We recently funded and published a report that looks at parents’ and carers’ views about keeping children with disabilities, including children with physical and learning disabilities and complex communication needs, safe from sexual abuse.

We’re joined by Sarah Goff, Safeguarding Disabled Children Services Manager at the Ann Craft Trust who, along with colleagues Anita Franklin and Alex Toft, wrote the report

Sarah discusses:

  • our report findings including the key issues for parents and carers
  • the need for accessible relationships and sex education for children and young people with disabilities
  • how parents and carers can work with schools to provide children with consistent messages around relationships and sex education
  • involving children, young people and their parents and carers in the development of services and approaches to preventing sexual abuse.

About the speaker

Sarah Goff is Safeguarding Disabled Children Services Manager at the Ann Craft Trust. She carries out research; delivers training to agencies and local safeguarding children partnerships; and, provides consultancy to organisations about safeguarding disabled children. Her recent work has focused on seeking the views of disabled children and young people placed away from home; the experiences of deaf and disabled children and young people facing domestic abuse and child sexual exploitation; and, developing training to support practitioners in keeping children safe.

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Related resources

> Read more about safeguarding children and young people with SEND

> Download our resources for young people aged 11 to 25 with learning disabilities

> Browse our PANTS guides for children with learning disabilities

> Read more about how you can protect children from sexual abuse


Podcast transcript

Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to inform, create debate, and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child's voice, and how what they tell us, informs the work we do.

Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. This week, we’re focusing on ways to safeguard disabled children and young people. Professionals, parents, carers and communities all play a really important role in keeping disabled children and young people safe from harm but there is a lack of evidence on how parents and carers understand and address issues around child sexual abuse, and in addition, there’s also a gap in what practitioners can learn from parents and carers themselves.

The NSPCC recently funded a study in order to look into these areas and explore ways to provide better support for parents and carers, and, at the same time, get parents and carers views on protecting their children, and how to work in collaboration to develop services.

I sat down and spoke to Sarah Goff, Development Manager from the Ann Craft Trust who, along with colleagues Anita Franklin and Alex Toft, wrote the report after interviewing 30 parents and carers about their views on working together to prevent sexual abuse.

Sarah talked about the need for accessible relationship and sex education; gaps in relationship and sex education information for disabled children and young people; the importance of a close working relationships between children, young people; their parents and carers and professionals in the development of services and approaches that could be relevant to preventing sexual abuse. And finally, Sarah talked about the key findings and recommendations from the report, which you’ll be able to find on our NSPCC Learning website.

In the podcast, there is a reference to Education and Health Care Plans, which is what support plans for disabled children and young people in England are called, we do acknowledge that support plans are known differently in the other three nations.

I began by asking Sarah why is there a need for accessible information for disabled children and young people.

In terms of the children and the families, we know that a lot more help is needed for them to make sense of safety and make sense of what is okay about their rights to speak out - to have a voice.

Many children with communication and learning impairments, they're quite used to being spoken over, spoken for, spoken about. Many parents struggle to get the right help, speech and language communication. Many young people struggle because perhaps if they have learning needs or autism, making sense of social communication and social behaviour of cues, the way other people might cover up what their intentions are - those things are extra difficult for those children.

And so, as practitioners, we need to recognise that we have an extra duty to do something about that - both that early help stage, education, health, the universal services but also in social caring, the police. And the parents have a right to a need, a lot more help and support from us. But that has to start with us recognising there's a problem. Well we still lack really detailed, up-to-date research about disabled children and abuse, but some of the very clear messages from the research that we have got would really indicate that dependence for care and intimate care, having lots of different caregivers, some children spend time in many different settings.

Sometimes disabled children are being cared for by people who haven't got the skills to communicate with those children in their own first language. That first language might be Makaton, it might be signing, it might be BSL. We're really clear from the stories of children who have been harmed that sometimes they've tried to tell them but professionals haven't picked that up because they haven't understood that a child's behaviour is communicating their distress.

I think we're very aware that for some of our children, they may find it difficult to name or to tell things that happened - of course that's true for all children - and it isn't children’s responsibility to tell us. It's our job as practitioners to ask. But it may be that as practitioners, we're less likely to ask disabled children, more likely perhaps to think the way that they're behaving is down to their disability. Perhaps more likely to ascribe injuries or marks to the physical condition or disability that they have. These children need the same degree of open minded, critical reflection and questions to be asked when there's any indication of distress. We need to understand their behaviour as a form of communication and use it.

Sarah from your experience, are there gaps in relationship and sex education that is for children with disabilities?

Yes, there are. There are gaps. This study sought to work with parents to find out what they thought. And I'll come on to that in a minute. But one of the really clear gaps, I think is that… it's really welcoming the new relationship and sex education guidance that will be coming in 2020 where there's a lot of work going on all over the country to prepare that and we absolutely welcome it.

But the existence of two or three or four lessons in school isn't ever enough to help equip a child for life, is it? It's also the responsibility of carers and parents at home and particularly for children with learning needs and communication needs. One size doesn't fit all. And for some children, they're going to need a lot more individually designed help. Some of our children's thinking might be very, very literal and need really carefully explained messages, perhaps using pictures, perhaps using sound, perhaps using other teaching methods - and all the sorts of things that need backing up at home.

We need parents and schools working together. At the moment, the thinking that's very much kind of curriculum based may not involve individual discussions with parents about how their particular child will cope with that. So, what we really need to see is a far more flexible partnership approach between foster carers, carers, residential workers, parents, schools.

For this report Sarah, you and your colleagues interviewed 30 parents whose children have disabilities. What was their views about the relationship and sex education their children received in schools?

Through a series of meetings with workers and parents, we had an advisory group, we had young people involved in setting up the project. But we actually talked to about 30 parents/ carers. And I really want to thank them for their commitment because they already have enough on in their lives and to give a bit of extra time to reflect in on some difficult topics is a big ask and we're very, very grateful. I hope that what we've produced does justice to what they think and feel and want.

I think some of the really important issues for parents were that they very much want more help. I think while they feel that perhaps their young people do get some help in schools, they want to be much more involved in discussions about that. I think for some of them, they feel that these topics are difficult for them.

I think we have to recognise that we've got a culture in our society that still finds maybe talking about sex and relationships quite difficult. I think for some of the parents, they recognise that their own feelings get in the way. It feels awkward. But actually what we know is that kids with learning needs need a very carefully put together package individually for them and that unless we have those explicit discussions - very carefully - that children won't necessarily get what's being discussed in class.

So I think a big issue for parents was wanting to be more involved in those partnerships with schools. Very clearly that they would like more help from practitioners. But essentially, parents really saying they worried about these topics. They realise these are big issues for their children as they're growing up. They don't want to avoid them, but it's difficult and they need more help to deal with them.

So, kind of moving on from that, why was it important for you to work with parents on this report and get their views and opinions?

Parents and carers, foster carers, residential workers - those parents and carers are the ones that day in, day out are with the young people. They have the relationships. They see their young people developing. They're the ones taking the strain. They're the ones who know what it's like trying to have those conversations. And they have an absolute right to be heard and for their needs to be part of what guides policy. Part of what guides how we develop practice and part of what guides services. I think as practitioners we need to learn from parents about what works. You know we have to work in partnership with parents. We have to listen to what works for them.

Can we talk about the importance of the kind of consistency between what is being taught at school and what is being reinforced back at home? That kind of partnership between school and home?

What children need to understand about relationships and about making sense of choices and friendships and safe friendships can't be learned in just one 45-minute or one-20-minute burst, can it? It's about rehearsing things. It's about going over things and as the child gets older, growing the amount of information that they’re given.

I think if they're being taught about body parts and about aspects of the physical side of sex and relationships, then going back over those things with their parents is probably a very important thing to make sure that they've understood that and that it's made sense.

You know, children use words in different ways to us. Sometimes a word will mean something to a child that is quite different from what it means to us. Parents and carers need to be absolutely sown into that and know what their child is being taught, so that they can help and support and give the same messages and that they and the teacher can work together if a child is getting stuck or finding things hard.

When we look across the range of practice research that there is about disabled children and child protection issues, I think some of the other issues that we're aware of is that at times maybe there are assumptions that disabled children won't be harmed, that they won't be harmed and they won't be abused. Sometimes there are perhaps also issues that that we don't talk directly to disabled children in the same way that we would ask other non-disabled children.

The invisibility of disabled children in child protection stats is quite worrying. And that's an issue that needs more attention. And I think perhaps the other really key issue is the lack of staff awareness. Practitioners don't always receive specific training in picking up signs of harm and abuse in disabled children and they're not always trained in communicating with disabled children. We've got many, many staff and many, many parents and carers who are all doing their absolute best and working very hard. But we need attention to the extra training and support needs of both parents and practitioners across the board.

And that was a key thing that came out of the report, isn’t it? That additional training is needed for professionals?

It was one of the things that parents felt was really important. It was a big, important issue for the parents. They would like to see practitioners be more aware and have more training.

Again, thinking about the report and what's come out of it, there was the indication that parents and carers should be involved in the development of services. Can we just embellish on that a little bit more?

I think that was on a number of levels. One of the levels was the involvement of both children and parents in Education and Health Care Plans. That sometimes they don't focus anything like enough on the social and emotional needs of children so that those plans could be talking more about how can we help these parents? How can we help find good resources? How can we help talk to children about some of these topics that are so important? And that those Education and Health Care Plans should focus on that whole child, their future socially, their friendships. Their relationships matter as much as placements and treatment.

I think another key issue there was schools and parents working together when sex and relationship topics are on the curriculum. And I think one of the things that came out in this study was the importance of parents having someone to go to in the school that they feel is approachable that they can talk to. We all know it can be hard to go and ask people for help and it can be hard when you see professionals in the school very busy. But if maybe there's a specialist social worker who knows you, who you feel comfortable with, who you feel you could broach topics.

One of the messages that I think is very troubling that we need to address, particularly within social work and child protection, is that parents are frightened sometimes to ask about help for talking about sex and relationship issues. They're frightened of their request being seen as a child protection issue. They're frightened of being put into child protection processes when all they're trying to do is help their child. We need to hear that. It's really important that where parents are worried about things, that they have a hearing, that their views are valued. And that we take on board what they feel works for them and having a direct known figure that they can go to for advice and help and support is crucial.

Sarah, could we talk about the elements of online safety because that does feature in the report? Could you talk to us about that?

This is absolutely a topic that parents want more help with. Some young people, particularly with autism and learning needs, maybe find it very difficult to deal with face-to-face relationships, but are actually very talented in terms of online skills. Some children with autism and learning needs may appear to understand intellectually the words that are being used, but actually not grasp the significance. And for some, very literal thinking might mean that it's very hard for those children to question the intentions of somebody asking them for things or pressurising them for things.

The parents that we spoke to realise this. They are very worried about online safety for their children and this is an area that we need a huge amount more work on and a lot more concrete help. For some parents, the worry is leading to them feeling that their children shouldn't even have an online life. And for those parents, they knew that they were being very restrictive. They felt worried about whether they were being overprotected. So I think we've got to listen to that. This is an area we need to develop practice and we need to develop the confidence to have those discussions with parents around the school’s cluster where their child is. You know, there's a huge role for schools to play in supporting families with these challenges.

So Sarah, it seems to me that it's important to involve children and young people's views and opinions so that they can explain to parents and carers and professionals what they're thinking and feeling and what they want to do. Why is it important that we do listen to the voice of the child?

We are trying to give children and disabled children as much voice and choice and say as possible.

One of the things we know about the lives of disabled children is that many of them are in special schools and settings or may be more isolated at home. It's crucial that we do more to enable them to have networks of other people they can talk to. And I think it's very important that we find out from them how they experience their world and what the things are that worry them the most that we may not have realised.

We had some young people that advised the set-up of this project. We've got some really good examples around the country of projects that have involved young people - disabled young people particularly - are a group who are not homogenous. There are so many different children. Every child with a disability is different, unique and individual. But there are patterns of them being spoken over, spoken for and spoken about. And one good way of growing strength and resilience is by giving them the mic, giving them the chance to ask the questions and say what they think works.

Many young people - we're fairly sure - want their parents to have help and support. This project, I hope, highlights that but maybe the next stage is finding out directly what children would like.

What kind of practical tools and resources are either available or should be being made available to children and young people with disabilities to help them in this area?

A starting point is that individual children probably need people who understand their particular communication style and can develop materials that work as a way for them to learn. Some children learn by drawing, some have social stories - by which I mean two or three key pictures that illustrate a key topic. Some children learn through signs and symbols and we often use varieties of combined communication methods.

We need professionals who have had enough training in safeguarding and communication and disability to develop the flexible skills to select the right methods for direct work with individual children.

In terms of resources, one of the resources is scaling up our own staff to make those critical, reflective, positive decisions. And of course, a lot of the special schools and SEND teachers have those skills enormously, but not necessarily in child protection. So that's one area.

Another area is developing the range of book clips and pictures and things that parents can use directly and I think that's a very big area to develop. And we have got some, haven't we? We've got the lovely PANTS campaign which everybody chuckles about and has strings of pants up on classroom walls and things like that. Really excellent creative tools. I understand as well that the Love Life resources that have been developed by the NSPCC are being piloted and have been put into use now. And that's definitely another key resource for teaching in small sections.

How good are we at getting those out into parents’ homes and into the kind of network of resources the parents know about? That's another area to think about. Maybe a third area is that we perhaps need some more picture-based resources that could be used to help talk about sex, relationships, friendships, unsafe friendships, lesbian and gay relationships and about life topics that feel safe.

We know that for older children the BILD Pack about understanding sexual relationships is a very good one. It allows professionals to print off three or four key topics to discuss. That particular pack is more suited to much older teens and young adults. We still very much need resources that are suited towards younger people, younger children.

One of the things that we were struck by in the lives of the parents that we spoke to - they are very busy people. They are parenting many children, not just the disabled child. They face many demands on their time. Anything we can do to make things more accessible and easy for them will be a big help.

So Sarah, we've talked about some key areas in the report. Could we just embellish on a few more that is going to help practice going forward?

Yeah, because we can't look at these issues in isolation from the needs of children as they grow older. I think one of the key things about doing more work on better understanding and awareness of disabled children's needs, such as sex and relationship education - one is to tackle the kind of perhaps underlying belief system that maybe is still there, that these kids won't be having sex and relationships. Of course, they will. Like every other child, they want to have friends. They will want to make these choices. They will want to do sexual stuff. And we need to give them a non-judgemental value base from which to have that to make those choices.

We need to make sure also that planning for them as they move towards adulthood takes these issues on board. I think there's fairly well documented difficulties in transitional planning, very well documented difficulties in getting good collaboration between children's and adult's services. And we know that many of our young people can go from very supported special schools and settings at 19, 20, 21, to being perhaps a little more isolated without those supportive networks in adulthood.

We really have to think very hard to make sure we're doing enough to put in opportunities to make friends, to have hobbies and interests, perhaps with other young people their own age that are safe. Many parents worry about what will happen to their children as they get older and perhaps spending a bit more time investing in whether kids are getting the opportunities to play a disability sport, maybe join organisations that they can make friends in safely and putting transitional planning on the map in terms of social and emotional needs, not just where is a child going to live - what's their job going to be? But also thinking about those friendships and networks.

I think the other key thing that came out for me in what the parents were telling us was that they would also like the chance to have support groups and workshops. And actually, parents are a phenomenal resource for protection. We learned so much from these amazing parents who do go way beyond the extra mile.

Some of the parents, I think, felt that it would be really great if they could facilitate workshops for other parents and that maybe parents could learn from each other. They could be supported to have the time and the logistics to run workshops to support other parents dealing with the same problems around sex and relationships that they feel they faced. And that's a really important empowering way to work, isn't it? That could be facilitated.

Absolutely and I know in the report parents talked about that being a safe space for them as well actually which makes it important. So, I think that peer to peer element is vital for parents, for the children and young people, but also for the practitioners.

Yes and you know, we have a lot to learn from parents and carers. They have a huge amount to teach us about what they know about their particular child. We can bring our professional insights and skills, but they bring their caring knowledge and their direct relationship with the child.

The kids, the young people, the children, need us to work together effectively across boundaries. We need to be working as parents, practitioners, all together to provide safe networks. And providing space to have specific times that parents can support each other and have both informal and formal workshops and networks would be a very important resource going forward.

I think that probably feeds as well into another issue that I think it's very important to raise. Sometimes I think because they don't know enough about what's okay, what's acceptable, what's safe - for some children, the things that they do sexually can end up getting them into trouble. If that's happening because we haven't supported those children to learn then maybe we're letting those kids down. It is really important we do everything we can to stop disabled children, in particular, those with communication and learning needs being criminalised.

We can see this coming sometimes in kids. If we avoid or don't address or are not proactive in tackling these topics, sometimes maybe children end up doing things that they haven't understood. So very, very important, something that we really tackle what sometimes gets described as inappropriate behaviour. Some children whose behaviour is harmful sexually, maybe with the right help could learn safer ways to be and that's a job that we face.

We've talked a little bit about a variety of communication methods children and young people use. But how does that evolve as they get older? Language evolves consistently. What impact does that have on children that don't, may be are non-verbal or they're more reliant on something more visual?

This is a really, really important area and it's really good that the Office of the Children's Commission has just published a report about the gaps and inconsistencies in speech and language therapy services available across the country.

Some children have particular communication kits, don't they? They maybe have images on their computer or maybe they have key fobs with lots of pictures or maybe they have cards that they use. And the thing is that, you know, say I'm seven and I'm enjoying playing with Lego and having picnics, the language that I want to use is going to be very different to five years later when I'm 12 or 13. Maybe I'm in school, maybe I don't like what's being served for dinner, maybe I don't like the kids that I'm with, or maybe I'm feeling bullied. Has my language vocabulary that people have given me been updated as I grow?

One of the things that we know is that if children aren't in special settings, special school settings where they're getting communication help and they're not getting speech language therapy help, is that vocabulary growing with them? Is it equipping them to be able to have words for body parts? Not just their own but if I'm a little boy, those of a girl or if I'm a girl, those of a boy. If I want to tell somebody, somebody is hurting me, how do I have the right language to do it? There's an awful lot of work needed to get recognition of why speech and language and the ability to communicate are so important.

I'm not for one second saying children are responsible for telling us they're being hurt. It's our job to notice. It's our job to tackle those who harm and abuse. But we are disabling children further if we don't keep communication work going because that's as important as learning to read and write for every child.

Sarah, thank you so much for coming to talk to us about the report today. Is there anything else you might want to add or leave us on?

I think Anita and Alex and I would all want to express really heartfelt thanks to the parents for giving us their time and also crucially to thank the support social worker from the setting where the interviews took place because I think her role in enabling, facilitating and those relationships, the confidence and the knowledge that she brings is crucial. And it's a very good illustration of the kind of role that we need in all the schools across the country that would support children.

I think also just to say thanks to the NSPCC for funding this piece of work and hopefully it's the start of a lot more close inspection of these areas of needs. The most important thing is that we listen to what parents have told us and that we try to find ways of turning the 10 tips, the 10 recommendations from the report into practice.

How do we get these messages out there into the schools, into social work teams, into health settings? How do we get these messages out? And how do we all collectively take responsibility for making discussing these topics no longer taboo? Children need grown-ups to be able to talk about it because without us supporting and helping they haven't got the information that they may need.


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