Sara Alston gives an in-depth analysis of the additional safeguarding vulnerabilities of children with SEND.
Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021 uses just four bullet points (para 185) to remind us of the additional safeguarding vulnerabilities of children with SEND. However, if we are to ensure their effective
safeguarding, we need to probe these points more deeply. To start, we need to be conscious that children with SEND are not a single group with identical needs. Ensuring their safeguarding requires us to consider their individual needs, strengths and difficulties. Effective safeguarding is dependent on knowing and listening to our children.
• Communication barriers and difficulties in managing or reporting these challenges.
It is important that a child’s voice is heard, regardless of how it is expressed. Many children with SEND have communication difficulties. Any child who is dependent on others to support them to express their needs is at risk of being misinterpreted or silenced. This is a particular issue as schools and parents often need to advocate for children, explaining and supporting their communications with other practitioners, especially when children use alternative communications strategies or devices.
Behaviour is communication, particularly when we lack or cannot use words to express our needs or worries. Changes in behaviour are a key indicator of a safeguarding need. All changes in a child’s behaviour should be considered and questioned.
• Children being more prone to peer group isolation or bullying (including prejudice-based bullying) than other children.
Children with SEND’s difficulties with communication and interaction, SEHM and/or physical needs and difficulties can mean that they can struggle to form and maintain social relationships. They may misunderstand socially appropriate behaviour and conventions – both in themselves and others. Their learning, behavioural and physical needs may make them appear different. This can be exacerbated by the support they receive in school causing them to stand out from their peers, leading to bullying, abuse and risks of exploitation, both in the physical and online worlds.
Many with SEND struggle with face-to-face interactions, so online interactions can seem easier to manage, because this is time to think before responding, you don’t have to deal with information from facial expressions or body language, there are clear topics for interaction. Yet they can lack the understanding to differentiate between friendship and bullying. These difficulties can be increased where children struggle with the difference between fact and fiction. Where a relationship is formed within a computer game, it can be hard for a child to identify or understand when there is a move beyond the game, that activities that might be acceptable, if not age appropriate, within the game are not acceptable within the real world. Children may act without understanding the implications of their actions and can be incited to inappropriate or even dangerous behaviour leading to involvement in violence, child criminal exploitation, sexualised behaviour (including the sending and sharing of nudes and semi-nudes) and vulnerability to radicalisation. Many perpetrators deliberately target these children.
• Assumptions that indicators of possible abuse such as behaviour, mood and injury relate to the child’s condition without further exploration.
Injury and changes in behaviour and mood are key indicators of abuse. Yet too often for children with SEND these are assumed to be related to their SEN or disability and so disregarded without further exploration.
Any injury in a non-mobile baby or child is an immediate red flag. If a child cannot move, any injury to them is likely to be caused by someone else. Equally because a child has regular meltdowns and throws themselves about or has seizures where they can injure themselves, does not mean that their injuries could not be caused by someone else. Further, being dependent on physical assistance and possibly intimate care reduces a child’s ability to resist or avoid abuse?
Mental health difficulties can co-occur with many forms of SEND. KCSIE highlights that mental health difficulties, including self-harm, can be an indicator of abuse. This must be considered for those with SEND, particularly where there is a change in behaviour or a lack of continuity of care which could lead to changes going unnoticed or being disregarded.
It is key that we keep asking ourselves the question: how would we regard a child’s behaviour or injury if they did not have special needs? Are we allowing their SEND, or our perception of their SEND to mask their communication of abuse?
• The potential for children with SEND or certain medical conditions being disproportionately impacted by behaviours such as bullying, without outwardly showing any signs.
An underlying key concept when considering safeguarding harms, impacts and risks is to compare a child to another similar child. This does not mean a child of the same age, but at the same developmental stage. For children with SEND, not only do we need to consider this for ourselves, but we need to be able to explain what a similar child is like to other practitioners. Many of us working with children with SEND, forget how much specialist knowledge we hold and use in our work without thinking and assume others share this. This is particularly true for children with non-visible needs and disabilities (e.g. autism, ADHD, speech and language difficulties). This includes explaining that special needs are a continuum and not all children with a particular difficulty will behave in the same way or have the same needs.
Extra bullet points:
• Working with parents.
Effective working with families is key to supporting the safeguarding of children with SEND. There is a real dichotomy here. Often when we are working closely with families, we become emotionally involved and engaged in their difficulties, so there is a danger that our compassion and understanding for parents can blind us to children’s safeguarding risks and needs. This can lead to a professional reluctance to make judgements concerning aspects of parenting. We need to remember that abuse perpetrators, including parents, groom the adults around them, including the professionals working with their children. Further the risks of disguised compliance are not reduced by being the parent of a child with SEND.
At the same time, professionals are not always open to listening to parents, particularly when their perception of their child varies from that of professionals. Children will behave differently at home, but often this is disregarded. Parents’ descriptions of their children’s behaviour can lead to safeguarding concerns and judgements about parenting.
Among the additional risks to children with disabilities and special needs is an increased vulnerability to neglect. Neglect is always hard to identify and evidence, particularly, for those with SEND. We need to be aware of issues with access to and engagement with services, including appropriate equipment and responses to medical needs, and concerns about physical interventions and behaviour modification. Equally the lack of availability and difficulties in accessing services can mean that children and/or their parents don’t complain or question professionals. Further, parents will have their needs which require support.
We need to remember that the key to our work with all children, including those with SEND, must be that ‘the welfare of the child is paramount.’ This requires us to see beyond the child’s SEND needs to understand, question and evaluate the challenges and risks they are experiencing.