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Podcast: Supporting d/Deaf children — putting the child at the centre of decision making

Last updated: 31 May 2024 Topics: Podcast

Learn more about keeping d/Deaf children and young people safe

Language and communication barriers faced by d/Deaf children and young people can manifest in a way that increases safeguarding risk. It's important that there are professionals who can understand and communicate with a child or young person if they need to report or disclose any issues they are experiencing.

In this podcast episode, a panel of experts from the Social Workers with Deaf Children and Professionals Working Group explore how the differing language and communication needs of d/Deaf children can affect their safety and the child protection support they receive.

The discussion covered:

  • additional support a d/Deaf child or young person may need in relation to reporting abuse or making a disclosure
  • the potential for hearing professionals to misinterpret how well d/Deaf children and young people can understand them
  • barriers which could prevent professionals identifying safeguarding concerns when working with d/Deaf children and young people
  • the importance of avoiding assumptions around how d/Deaf children and young people prefer to communicate
  • the impact of disappearing specialist knowledge for working with d/Deaf children and young people in professional practice.

Watch the full episode, including in-video interpretation:

> Listen to the audio

About the speakers:

Shirley Wilson MBE is the NSPCC's Senior Consultant on Deaf & Disabled Children and Young People and Professional Service Delivery Chair of the Social Workers with Deaf children and professionals group.

Jo Hornsby joined Suffolk County Council Children and Young People’s Service in 2010 and worked as a specialist Social Worker for Deaf Children in the Sensory and Communication Service. Jo moved to the Disabled Children and Young People’s Team in 2018 following a review of the specialist sensory service. Jo continues to work with Deaf children, as well as children with a range of disabilities, as a Senior Social Worker.

Alys Young is Professor of Social Work at the University of Manchester, NIHR Senior Investigator, co-lead of SORD (Social Research with Deaf People at University of Manchester) as well as distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Deaf Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, SA. In 2024 she received the Family Centred Early Intervention lifetime achievement award for her research work with deaf children and families.

Tim Richardson is the Provider Collaborative Lead on the West Yorkshire Health and Care Partnership Children and Young People’s Mental Health Strategic Plan and a member of the Social Workers with Deaf Children group.

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Related resources

> Read the full Guidance for Safeguarding Partners in England - Deaf Children, Young People and their Families document (PDF)

> Learn more about safeguarding d/Deaf and disabled children and young people

> Read our learning from case reviews briefing on d/Deaf children and children who have disabilities

> Take our training course on safeguarding d/Deaf and disabled children and young people in England



Welcome to the NSPCC Learning Podcast, where we share learning and expertise in child protection from inside and outside of the organisation. We aim to create debate, encourage reflection and share good practice on how we can all work together to keep babies, children and young people safe.

Welcome to the NSPCC learning Podcast. In this episode, you'll hear a discussion between a panel of experts from the Social Workers with Deaf Children and Professionals Working Group. This discussion, recorded in October 2023, explores how the differing language and communication needs of d/Deaf children can affect their safety and the child protection support they receive. Shirley Wilson, senior development consultant at the NSPCC, chaired the panel.

Shirley Wilson:
I'm Shirley Wilson. I've been working as a senior consultant for the NSPCC now for 12 years in a specific role in relation to d/Deaf and disabled children and young people. What that actually means is I'm responsible for working with a range of external organisations to support their safeguarding arrangements. And that includes things like bespoke training, reviewing their child protection/safeguarding policies and procedures. And prior to the NSPCC, I worked as a social worker and manager in a number of local authorities.

So now I'm going to introduce our topic for today. The headline of this is we're going to be talking about language and communication in relation to safeguarding d/Deaf children and young people. And that links to their families, because one of the things that we do know about is that language and communication barriers faced by d/Deaf children, young people actually manifests itself in a way that increases safeguarding risk. And I want to explore that today.

Just briefly, I just want to say what the social workers with d/Deaf children and professionals is. It's actually an external group of social workers and allied professionals who are working in a range of domains. These include local authorities, academia, mental health, research and the charities sector, in relation to d/Deaf children and their families across England. We've been chairing this group for a long time, and all of you are longstanding members of the group. But what I want to make reference to is that we produced some guidance — and I particularly want to highlight a thanks to Chris Mullen from the NDCS, who's no longer working for them anymore, he's moved on to other careers — but he spent a lot of time preparing the guidance, called 'Guidance for Safeguarding Partners in England: d/Deaf Children, Young People and their Families', which we put together over quite a long period of time as a big collaboration. And that finally went on the website at the NDCS in August 2022.

The guidance is actually for supporting safeguarding partners and their partnership in England to consider what the safeguarding needs of d/Deaf children, young people and their families are with regard to the services they provide. Now that sounds quite long-winded, and I think what we can do now is do much more of a relaxed discussion about what we're looking at, and I've got a number of questions that I'm going to bring into the discussion. But first of all, I'd like people to introduce themselves. So can I start with Professor Alys Young, then we'll do Jo, and then Tim, thank you very much.

Alys Young:
Thanks, Shirley. Hello everybody. I my name is Alys Young and I've worked for many, many years alongside d/Deaf colleagues in social work and in research. I'm professor of social work at the University of Manchester, and I'm also the co-director of the SORD Research Group. SORD, which is social research with deaf people.

Jo Hornsby:
Hello, everyone, I'm Jo Hornsby. I'm a social worker and have been a specialist social worker working with d/Deaf children and young people for quite a few years now. I work for the local authority in Suffolk. I used to be part of a specialist service, which I feel very privileged to have been working during that time when there were specialist services. In more recent years. I've remained a specialist worker but within the disabled children and young people's team in children and young people's service in Suffolk.

Tim Richardson:
My name is Tim Richardson. I worked in national d/Deaf CAMHS, child and adolescent mental health services, from 2010. I was the manager of the northern arm of National d/Deaf CAMHS, but I was also part of the leading group for the national development of national d/Deaf CAMHS alongside people like Professor Barry Wright and Doctor Sophie Roberts.

So I'm going to kick off with the first question. I might initially ask Alys to do an initial response and then let's all chip in. The first question is about what the additional support that a d/Deaf child might need in relation to reporting abuse or making a disclosure. So what I'm looking at here is what might that look like and how do you think they could receive this type of support or how could this support be developed. So I'll kick off with you Alys, and then everybody else can chip in.

So it's a really, really important question. But before I get to it, I just want to go one step back, which is just to remind people who are viewing this podcast that we're talking about d/Deaf children now at this point in the 21st century. And that's really important because d/Deaf children now and the conditions in which they're growing up and what's available for d/Deaf children and their families is very different than 20 years ago or 30 years ago. And that's quite an important point, because some experienced professionals might have an image in their mind about d/Deaf children's capabilities or the barriers that d/Deaf children face that was actually formed in previous time rather than contemporary time. So something that we're all going to be talking about is deaf children now, not deaf children in the past.

That links really for me to another point. D/deaf children at this point in the 21st century generally are identified very early. So that means their d/Deafness is recognised very early on in life, from baby onwards. And we have very sophisticated hearing technologies that are available for d/Deaf children now, whether they're hearing aids, whether they're cochlear implants. We've also got a society that's very welcoming of sign language. You're seeing sign language everywhere, whether it's Strictly Come Dancing or Bake-Off or, you know, it's just in the aether in society. So some of the stigma around that perhaps is dissipating a little bit. And we've got the new BSL Act that came in at the end of last year, which formally recognises the legal status of sign language.

What I'm saying here is there's a sort of assumption growing in my view, that the conditions are right for d/Deaf children really to be a bit like hearing children. There's a sense out there that really there aren't that many difficulties here, there aren't that many barriers, but the truth is completely the opposite. To give you some examples; if you are a hearing professional or just a hearing person who's not used to being around d/Deaf people, either professionally or socially, if you hear a child speak well — with hearing aids, for example — you might think that they understand well. Actually, that's not true. If you see a child who signs, you might think that they read well. That's not necessarily true. That very fundamental difference between expressive communication and receptive communication, so how well you seem to be able to communicate and how well you can understand; these are very often not equivalent for children and professionals very frequently misinterpret that.

And so for me, the first barrier I'd like to suggest around reporting is the assumptions that adults make about d/Deaf children's capabilities around communication. And very often in a situation where a child might be wishing to report something terrible that's been happening to them, their preferred language is perhaps not recognised, or their preferred way to interact is perhaps not recognised because, after all, it's easier just to think, "oh, a deaf child can speak, it's fine, we'll just use spoken language." So my first point is: what is the child's preference and how do we understand that and how do we meet that. And if a child doesn't see that happening for them then that's a major barrier to reporting.

But I wonder whether, Joanne, from your practice, that's something that you would agree with? Or have you seen a different point of view?

Yeah, completely. I mean, I think the key is absolutely to start with where that child is at and that child-centred approach and understanding the preferences of that child and really understanding how they are communicating and what their experiences are on a day-to-day basis. And that's where it's so important that there are professionals involved and around that child at that time to have that awareness, so that they can really understand what's going on for that child and to be able to communicate with that child and reach those issues that the child may be experiencing. And that's where perhaps we've seen a bit of a change over the past few years in that those specialist teams aren't there in the same way that they were.

And there might be specialist workers, but it might be more difficult for that child to gain access to those. So, yes, it's very tricky. And of course, you know, it's also very important to be... I think when we often become involved, it's where families are really struggling. So it's also being able to understand where the parents are at and what experiences that parents have had. Obviously, as we know, most d/Deaf children are born to hearing parents. So we're, often working with people who may have had very limited, knowledge or experience of being around d/Deaf people in their lives, so this can be a real shock to them. And again, it's really important for those families to have access to workers who have got that awareness and understanding about what that family might be going through at that time.

That's great. Tim, have you got some thoughts on this?

Yes, thanks Shirley. I think at the risk of labouring the point, quite often d/Deaf children and young people will communicate in the way that the people around them can best receive. So they will modify their communication to meet the needs of those around them. I think going back to Alys' point, it's really key that before we even start out, don't make those assumptions. Don't be seduced by how well a young person might be communicating to think that that is their preferred way of communicating. It takes a little bit of effort, and what we would call something like scaffolding, not to take that face value thing, but to go back a step.

For example, when you're talking about emotions, you might want to first talk about what an emotion is and have a real understanding that the young person understands what you're talking about before you then launch into what emotions a young person might be feeling. Key, I think, is having people who understand the d/Deaf experience and whether that be a deaf person is great, or a sign language interpreter; people who are going to be keyed in or more linked in with the language and the communication and to be able to pick up on those subtleties that, if you're not used to working with d/Deaf children and young people, you could very well miss out on.

Could I possibly just add to what you're saying about emotion, Tim? Because I think it's absolutely crucial here. I think that, linked again to barriers to reporting or barriers to abuse being recognised by other people — because obviously it's both things. It's a child reporting or in some cases it might be an adult recognising there's something wrong. So my point refers to both. One of the things about d/Deafness, whether you're a spoken language user or a sign language user, is that there is an interruption in some way to your ability to pick up language, ideas, general conversation, kind of world knowledge, and d/Deaf children in different ways experience a lack in that. Some are superb, absolutely; almost no filter, no difference. But for many children there are significant difficulties in learning about nuances.

So, years ago, I remember a very well known, professional working in this area used to talk about emotionally toned language so that if you are actually in conversations all the time, you can pick up quite easily the difference between being furious, being mildly angry, being a little annoyed. You pick up those differences in language, and you develop inside the emotional toning of your own understanding of the world. I think for d/Deaf children, that's really difficult to do if there are blocks in access just to casual communication, never mind anything else.

So then taking your point Tim, when you come to a situation where a child might have experienced abuse and you're asking a question that's about emotion and about understanding the world emotionally and psychologically, that child might not have the expected range of understanding of a child of that age. Or they might do. Again, we can't make assumptions generally; every child is different. But I think it is a really key point that professionals who aren't specialists, like Joanne was talking about, are unlikely to realise is significant.

I think that's absolutely spots on Alys, and I think it goes back to that asking the question behind that might feel a little bit obvious. But when you ask... Quite often we speak with young people... And this to contextualise it, the young people we work with have significant mental health issues. So we're talking about a particular population within a population. But very often it's not infrequent where the three emotions they can name are happy, angry and sad. So there's no nuance, going back to the toning.

That also gets played out in behaviour. So you can go from a young person sitting there in the classroom to a young person acting out very aggressively and people around them being genuinely surprised about where that came from. But it almost mirrors their understanding of, because there was no language, there was no way to express "I'm starting to feel frustrated now."

Can I just add to this a slightly different perspective, and then I'll move on to the next question. I've recently been doing some bespoke training this year, particulary with actually quite a few d/Deaf organisations. It's been really positive that they've been coming forward. One of the things for me that I bring up is the sign for abuse is one: it's abuse. You all know this, but I think the general population just look at abuse.

What I've said to these d/Deaf adults, because they work with d/Deaf young people and children and their families, is: how do you expect a child to be able to make a disclosure if they think this [the BSL sign for abuse] just means 'beating up'. Where in actualy fact we need to go into much greater detail about sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect. I'm trying to get across to the d/Deaf adult community, because I feel that they also have a role to play in supporting the work that happens out there. Some of these organisations are absolutely fantastic because they provide services that the local authorities are unable to provide now, so whether have the support that they can help their groups. And I feel that by them having a better understanding, and when we have those discussions about the word abuse, they then start to unravel that.

I hope in time that that will then filter down to the younger d/Deaf population. So I just wanted to add to that because I think it really is quite critical.

We've talked a lot about the difficulties and the problems. I'd like to throw in something positive here, because I don't want somebody looking at this podcast thinking every d/Deaf child has a problem, you know, and every d/Deaf child is likely to be abused. I think one of the things that d/Deaf young people do as peers — so when d/Deaf young people are with other d/Deaf young people — is that they can spot really quickly whether there's something not quite right with their friend or within their peer group. And some of that acuity is a visual acuity that hearing people don't have in the same way.

That visual recognition of differences in facial expression, body tone, nonverbal tone, that kind of thing. The problem is that young d/Deaf people, as peers, often don't know the route to take their concerns. So who is likely to believe them? If they want to support their friend to say something, who would that friend talk to? Who is the trusted adult and the trusted adult who can communicate? Because we know from all the resilience literature, for example, it just takes one trusted adult that you feel comfortable communicating with, and the young person's world can just change.

But for d/Deaf young people, the number of potentially trusted adults is a lot less, particularly if, for example, abuse is happening in a family. And a family member that you might actually feel comfortable with and want to talk to, you just think you can't do that because they are too closely connected with somebody who might be creating an abusive situation.

Can I now move on to the next question, if that's all right? Because I'm just conscious we've got a lot we want to talk about here. My next question is: what barriers do you think might prevent professionals from identifying safeguarding concerns when working with d/Deaf children and young people. Because I think, obviously, you have a lot of experience in that area.

Alys already touched on that one of the barriers is having a route for a young person to express their concerns. And I suppose one of the things there is how do we facilitate communication generally and how do we create that space for a trusted person or a trusted dialogue, if you like? I think one of the barriers, historically and maybe still, is that there can be low expectations for d/Deaf children and young people that can be sometimes within families, and it can also be within professional groups.

So what we would expect, for example, in terms of what language a young person or a child might have; that might be modified. And we've sadly seen actual cases where that is and that's led to tragic outcomes, where we've not accepted that it's not okay for a young person, d/Deaf or hearing to not have a language at the age of three. So, I think a lot of this — I mean, sometimes I feel a bit like a stuck record — but a lot of it comes back to language and communication and making sure we get that bedrock right.

The effort should be on the part of us as professionals and the people around the child to create as many opportunities for that young person to express themselves in the way that is their preferred way.

I was just thinking about all of the complications, just thinking about the process, you know, that a child and a family have had to go through, and there's so many complications in that process, isn't there. From the outset we've got children who have got those language and communication barriers, so they may not have the language to be able to name and tell us what is going on for them in the first place. Then, do they have a trusted person to go to to say that? And is that trusted person somehow incorporated in what's going on for them? That's a complication in itself.

And then you've got to work the way through a potentially difficult system, where professionals are perhaps not having the awareness to then respond as that child needs them to respond. So there are so many complications, aren't there, along that route. And then, of course, if a child has made a disclosure, in order to then be able to progress with that situation and to take some action, and for there to be some outcome from it, you need the detail. You need the evidence. You need the child to be able to explain to you what has happened. And, of course, that's a highly complicated process and requires a deep understanding, as we've said, about how that child communicates. What's their preferred way of expressing that, and then having the awareness and ability to be able to respond to that.

The professionals in that process need to have good awareness and good communication skills, and then access to interpreting services, interpreters who are appropriately trained, and can respond in the appropriate ways. So there's so many points along that process where things can fall down and where we don't manage to respond in the way that we should do for that child to get to the place where we need to be.

Thank you. I don't want to stop the conversation, because I think the next question actually is going to be incorporating a lot of what you've already started. I want to expand on that a bit more, because I think the systematic process of child protection procedures is a big barrier.

For me, the next question I think — Tim, if I can ask you to start this off — what do you think professionals could do to develop effective multi-agency partnership, that not only considers the needs, but for me it's about how does it strengthen the response of meaningful services? Crux of the matter, it's about meaningful services to children and their families.

Yeah. I think it it goes... it links in with the work we've done within the group. It's thinking about doing things before. So establishing foundations, establishing networks locally, introducing the issues for d/Deaf children and young people to groups like in schools and social care. What you'll find is when you do that, there's always a cohort of people who are really interested, who really want to take up... pick up the panel with us, you know, sort of thing.

Even if they haven't had BSL or they haven't got any prior knowledge of working with d/Deaf people, there are people who are genuinely captivated by it, who will be natural allies in terms of people to go to, whether that be in a social services department, or in health or in education. In general it is about, I think, there's something about their needs to be work beforehand to set up, to find where are our natural allies. Getting out there, doing a bit of awareness raising, as well as offering training where appropriate, and trying to build those. Now, there are natural places like the safeguarding boards and the like, where I think you could build that in.

One of the things that, as a specialist worker and alongside my specialist colleagues, is that it's keeping deaf children on, on the agenda. Wherever you go it's making sure that it's mentioned and, you know, I think people get really fed up with us with doing that, but we do do that. Any meeting, any training, any place where people are coming together, you say "what about how would that be for a deaf child in that situation?" You know, let's think about that. So it's keeping the deaf children on the agenda. And I mean d/Deaf awareness was something that we used to do very frequently.

And, of course, with the pressures — and this is the reality of the current times — is that those things like d/Deaf awareness training get pushed to the side a bit. And of course, it's so vital that that happens because it is through that... Yeah, we always used to come away with a little fan group that, as you said Tim, they are interested and they want to find out about it. Being able to continue to do that d/Deaf awareness training with colleagues is really vital, I think, particular to perhaps teams that are at that coalface, like the MASH for example, who are receiving those referrals in who really need to have that awareness.

And of course it needs to be something that's ongoing, you can't just do it once and it's done. It needs to be something that's done over and over again, doesn't it? Because, you know, obviously information changes, but also workers move on and so there's different people who need to have that awareness.

Shirley: Thank you very much.

Alys: Before I say my point, Jo, what's MASH?

Jo: Oh MASH, sorry about that. They're the multi-agency safeguarding hub. So that's the team that receive those referrals and are then processing that. So yes, very important that they have that awareness.

Thanks for that. So the point I wanted to make: Shirley, you're asking us, really, about specialists as well within this process. I suppose I've got three points I want to make. I absolutely, totally endorse what everybody said about needing very high quality, experienced interpreters who know what they're doing in child protection. But interpreters do not solve the problem. And I've met too many social work professionals who think that they can manage a quite serious child safeguarding incident involving a d/Deaf child if they just bring an interpreter in, and then all the difficulties suddenly disappear.

So I'd really like to clearly say that's not the case, because as all of us have said all the way through this podcast, it's actually you need to understand d/Deaf children. You need to understand communication, language development, d/Deaf child experience, if you're going to be standing alongside that child in such a difficult situation; but also make sense of all of the steps in the safeguarding process. So an interpreter is vital — doesn't solve the problem. There are, however, really good d/Deaf professionals out there who are incredibly well qualified as well. They're quite rare, and sometimes they don't work directly as social workers; sometimes they do.

I think there needs to be a point at which somebody asks themselves, "where is the d/Deaf person in this safeguarding process or in this child protection process?" Because whatever role that d/Deaf person is playing professionally, they will bring some things that hearing people do not have and can never have. And so where is the d/Deaf person in the process professionally is a really important question.

And my last question, or my last point, is a question I constantly asked myself when I was in practice, which is what is the limit of my expertise and what is the limit of my knowledge? So that process of reflection as a professional, every step of the way, so that you recognise when you can't do something, when you don't know enough, when you need another person in the room supporting you. And I think there's not enough of that questioning that happens these days because, as Jo, you've already said, social work departments are under huge pressure, so you get allocated, you just do the job and that scope for reflection and just stopping and saying, "I'm not good enough, I don't know enough." There's very little space for that these days.

We have already talked about what is the impact of disappearing specialist knowledge in practice for working with d/Deaf children, and we know that from the social workers group. So I just wonder who wants to answer this: is there any miracle that we can look at to addressing this in current society.

Yeah, I mean it's it's a really, really challenging question, isn't it? Because we know that the reality is that there's tremendous pressures on local authority children's services and the pressures are relentless. So the days of the specialist service feels like there's not going to be, you know, it feels to me like there's not going to be a great change in that right at the moment. So perhaps it is about, doing what we're doing already in terms of raising the awareness, keeping the subject on the agenda.

I mean, for us — myself and my colleagues who were part of that specialist service and have that memory of that — one of the things that we do is we ensure that we keep those relationships going. We make sure that we liaise with our colleagues, the teachers of the d/Deaf, and colleagues in audiology, so that we're retaining that old model to some degree in terms of working together and talking things through and having those conversations about individual children. And I think that that helps.

Yeah. I just wonder if it's such a significant gap, and the right thing is to have that specialist knowledge, then our efforts should be going to have that reinstated rather than trying to plug the gaps. And I think that we've kind of got into a way of working where that's what we do. We try and make up for what's missing by cobbling things together. I think it's worth, where we still have that, if we could evidence what difference that makes and be pushing for what should be in place rather than accepting that it's not in place and covering for it.

Thank you. Alys?

I agree with both of you. I did some research about the demise of specialist social work teams a few years ago. One of our respondents described themselves when I said, "what do you do?" They said, "I'm a gap filler. I do the thing nobody else does that d/Deaf children and families need. And that's the definition of my job." In that same piece of research, we asked many local authorities to tell us who's the specialist designated worker might be, because that's somebody we needed to reach in order to do the research. Most, and I genuinely mean most, couldn't tell us who their specialist social work professional might be, because the system said if there's a deaf child that comes to notice around a child protection concern, it goes into whatever the generic team is, whether that's a children and families team or disabilities team.

And that structure covers up those pockets of specialism that still exist as well, which is another problem in this. But going back to your point, Tim. I think we do need to evidence things a bit more — I'm bound to say this working in a research department, but nonetheless — we need to evidence the harm and the unnecessary harm that happens to d/Deaf children because of late recognition when abuse happens, or because social services are only able to respond to the most extreme emergency or the most extreme manifestation of harm. And we also need to evidence good practice because it's still there. It's just very, very hidden.

So what difference is it making that people like you, Jo, are working in the way you're working? How is that quantified? And I know social workers are not that keen on things being quantified, but actually quantifying what makes a difference is really important.

And I think the third button to press, if you like, is the 'rights' button. So children's rights and understanding the way in which services might not be adequate from the perspective of the rights of the child as opposed to what can a service provide. So changing the framework a little bit in how we talk about the problem. I think that might create some pressure around supporting specialist social work development a bit more.

Shirley: Thank you very much indeed  for your contributions. I think this is a good place now to actually conclude our discussion. I want to say a massive thank you very much to Tim Richardson, Professor Alys Young, and Jo Hornsby for joining us today. And I hope this has been a really useful podcast for moving on. Thank you very much indeed for all of your time.

Thanks for listening to this NSPCC learning Podcast. At the time of recording, this episode's content was up to date, but the world of safeguarding and child protection is ever-changing. So, if you're looking for the most current safeguarding and child protection training, information or resources, please visit our website for professionals at