Safeguarding d/Deaf and disabled children

Last updated: 04 Sep 2018
Introduction

Children who have disabilities are at an increased risk of being abused compared with their non-disabled peers (Jones et al, 2012).

They are also less likely to receive the protection and support they need when they have been abused (Taylor et al, 2014).

Professionals sometimes have difficulty identifying safeguarding concerns when working with d/Deaf and disabled children (NSPCC, 2016).

It’s vital that everyone who works with children understands how to safeguard those who have disabilities and protect them from harm.

We’re using the term ‘disabled children’ to refer to children and young people with a range of very different conditions and identities, some of whom may not identify as being disabled. This includes children who are d/Deaf, are on the autistic spectrum, have a condition such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and/or children who have a long term illness.

Risk and vulnerability factors

There are several factors that contribute to disabled children being at a greater risk of abuse.

Communication barriers

  • Children with speech, language and communication needs face extra barriers when it comes to sharing their worries and concerns.
  • Adults may have difficulty understanding a child’s speech so they may not realise when a child is trying to tell them about abuse.
  • Adults may not have the knowledge and skills to communicate non-verbally with a child, which can make it harder for children to share their thoughts and feelings.
  • Communicating solely with parents or carers may pose a risk if the child is being abused by their parent or carer.
  • It can be difficult to teach messages about what abuse is or how to keep safe to children with communication needs.
    Without this knowledge children may not recognise that they are being abused or have the ability to describe what’s happening to them.

Increased isolation

  • Disabled children may have less contact with other people than non-disabled children. This means they have fewer people to turn to if they need help or support.

  • They may be further isolated if they:

    • need carers to take them out
    • have restricted independence because they use a wheelchair or require a sign language interpreter
    • live away from home at a residential school.
  • Disabled children and their families may have limited access to support systems. Support may not be available or may not be appropriate for the child’s physical, emotional or cultural needs. This can make it difficult for parents to provide the care their child needs and can lead to a child being abused or neglected.

Dependency on others

  • Children with disabilities may have regular contact with a wide network of carers and other adults for practical assistance in daily living including personal intimate care.
    This can increase the opportunity for an abusive adult to be alone with a child.
  • If a child is abused by a carer they rely on, they may be more reluctant to disclose abuse for fear that the support service will stop.
  • Caring for a child with little or no support can put families under stress. This can make it difficult for parents to provide the care their child needs and can lead to a child being abused or neglected.

Inadequate support

It can be difficult for any child who has experienced abuse to get the support they need, but disabled children may face extra problems:

  • Disabled children are less likely to tell someone about experiencing abuse and more likely to delay telling someone than their non-disabled peers (Hershkowitz, Lamb and Horowitz, 2007).
  • Adults may not understand and respond to a disabled child’s safeguarding needs.
  • Communication barriers may prevent adults fully understanding what the child is telling them.
  • Some adults may not focus on a disabled child’s views.
  • If abuse is reported to the police and/or children’s social care, the response may be affected if professionals lack skills or experience in working with disabled children.

Misunderstanding the signs of abuse

It’s not always easy to spot the signs of abuse. In some cases, adults may mistake the indicators of abuse for signs of a child’s disability.

  • A child experiencing abuse or attempting to disclose abuse may self-harm or display inappropriate sexual behaviour or other repetitive and challenging behaviours. If this is misinterpreted as part of a child’s disability or health condition rather than an indicator of abuse, it can prevent adults from taking action.
  • Injuries such as bruising may not raise the same level of concern as they would if seen on a non-disabled child. Adults may assume that bruising was self-inflicted or caused by disability equipment or problems with mobility.

Lack of education on staying safe

  • Personal safety programmes and sex and relationships education are not always made accessible to deaf and disabled children. As a result, a disabled child may not know how to recognise abuse or who to tell.

Disabled children at greatest risk of abuse are those with behaviour/conduct disorders. Other high-risk groups include:

  • children with learning difficulties/disabilities
  • children with speech and language difficulties
  • children with health-related conditions
  • d/Deaf children (Miller and Brown, 2014).
Safeguarding policies and procedures

The needs of disabled children should be incorporated into safeguarding policies and procedures.

Safeguarding policies should:

  • include an equality statement with a commitment to anti-discriminatory practice
  • recognise the increased vulnerability of disabled children to abuse and neglect and the barriers they may face
  • include additional safeguards to protect disabled children
  • cover any safeguarding issues that are specific to a child’s disability such as intimate care and safe touch.

Intimate care

Children with certain disabilities or medical issues may need help and support with intimate personal care including going to the toilet and washing.

There should be a separate policy on how intimate care plans are written, carried out and reviewed. This should include making sure children and young people are including in the development of care plans.

The policy should cover safeguarding concerns around intimate care including:

  • how records of intimate care are kept
  • a statement about the responsibility of all staff to report any child protection concerns arising from intimate care
  • a statement that recognises that staff carrying out intimate care may be at increased risk of allegations of abuse
  • a statement that recognises that perpetrators of abuse can include members of staff as well as others known to the child
  • how the organisation will respond to allegations of abuse related to intimate care.

Training

Everyone working with children should receive regular child protection training.

Training should highlight the reasons disabled children are at increased risk of abuse and neglect and why additional safeguards are needed to protect them.

It should provide guidance on what to look out for and how to respond early to the needs of disabled children.

> See our range of online and face-to-face safeguarding and child protection training courses

Direct work

Assessment

In any assessment of a disabled child, professionals should assess all the needs of the child and their family, not just those related to the child’s disability.

  • Professionals should ensure that parents understand and are supported to meet the additional needs of caring for a disabled child.
  • Professionals across all agencies should be aware of safeguarding issues for disabled children.
  • Professionals should be aware of the range of services available to families and disabled children. Families and children should be referred to these services accordingly (NSPCC, 2016).

Best practice

Learning from case reviews about disabled children emphasises the importance of child focused practice, highlighting the need for a holistic approach to supporting disabled children and their families (NSPCC, 2016).

Listening to the child

  • Make sure the child’s voice is heard. Where there are safeguarding concerns, speak to children alone and don’t use parents as interpreters.
  • If a child’s disability means verbal communication is difficult or impossible, make every attempt to communicate by other means.
  • Consider how a child may communicate through their actions. Consider whether distressed or disruptive behaviour is due to the child’s disability or if the child is upset for another reason.
  • Tailor tools and resources to the child’s needs. Check that the child has understood what you’ve told them and is able to apply it – don’t make assumptions about what they have understood.

Information sharing

  • Professionals should have a shared understanding of the nature of a child’s disability, the services their family are receiving and the risk of harm. This information should be used by all agencies to distinguish between disability and child protection issues.

Interagency cooperation

  • Specialist disabled children services should be embedded within wider support services and children and families.
  • Every family should be designated a lead professional to coordinate work across services and provide a single point of contact (NSPCC, 2016).

Working with sign language interpreters

Every d/Deaf child is different and every family is complex in its own way. This means there is no ‘ideal’ way to facilitate communication between safeguarding professionals and d/Deaf children. Best practice includes:

  • consider whether a child protection assessment or discussion is better with or without a third party. Would the child rather sign directly to a trusted individual, or have a third party in the room?
  • reflect on your own language limitations and don’t assume you can communicate “well enough”. Even when a d/Deaf child can use spoken language, this may not be the method of communication they’re most comfortable with.
  • it’s likely that sign language interpreters will be more familiar with d/Deaf culture than most social workers. Recognise sign language interpreters as having cultural knowledge that can help you gain optimal understanding and participation.
  • sign language interpreters are highly skilled professionals, but won't always have much experience of working in safeguarding and child protection situations. It’s therefore important for social workers and interpreters to spend time together preparing and making sure key concepts are understood.
  • always prioritise the child’s strengths, requirements and needs, whether working with an interpreter or not.
Empowering d/Deaf and disabled children

Social attitudes and assumptions about disability can lower a child’s self-confidence and make them feel disempowered.

Building a child’s self-esteem can help to promote their safety. A child who feels empowered is less likely to blame themselves if they experience abuse and more likely to seek support.

Help empower disabled children by:

  • consulting them on their views and wishes about their life and care in order to meet their needs
  • giving them access to advocacy services
  • providing them with communication support and opportunities to express themselves
  • helping them to build a supportive relationship with a trusted person – this can increase the chances of a child disclosing abuse to that person (Taylor et al, 2015)
  • providing accessible education on topics such as keeping safe, sex and relationships and online safety
  • providing information in accessible formats.

Our PANTS resources help parents talk to their children about how to stay safe from abuse. We’ve developed resources which are tailored to the needs of children and parents with disabilities.

> Find out more about PANTS resources on the NSPCC website

Activities that can help improve disabled children’s wellbeing include:

Peer support and social activities.
Opportunities for recreational and social interaction can enable children to explore issues with their peers. Activities can also build on children’s confidence and reduce isolation.

Creative therapies.
Activities like art and music can provide children with opportunities to express themselves through indirect and non-verbal means.

Building relationships.
Supportive and trusting relationships can help make a child feel safe and confident and know that they have someone to talk to.

Improving communication.
Helping a disabled child to communicate with trusted adults can help them express their views and tell someone if they need help.

> d/Deaf children and young people can contact Childline through a qualified BSL interpreter using Sign Video

References

References

Hershkowitz, I. Lamb, M.E. and Horowitz, D. (2007) Victimization of children with disabilities American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 77(4): 629-635.

Jones, L. et al (2012) Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies The Lancet, 380(9845):899-907.

Miller, D. and Brown, J. (2014) ‘We have the right to be safe’: protecting disabled children from abuse [London]: NSPCC.

NSPCC (2016) Deaf and disabled children: learning from case reviews 

Taylor, J. et al (2014) An investigation into the relationship between professional practice, child protection and disability (PDF) Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.

Taylor, J. et al (2015) Deaf and disabled children talking about child protection London: NSPCC.

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or read on the Childline website:

You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Further reading

For further reading about parental mental health, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the keywords "children with disabilities"; "children with multiple disabilities"; "children with physical disabilities"; "deafness"; "safeguarding".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service

Related NSPCC resources

Our summary of learning for improved practice from case reviews working with d/Deaf and disabled children provides several key findings.

Read our commissioned report summarising research on d/Deaf and disabled children’s experiences of the child protection system.