The signs of abuse and what to do if you are concerned about a child
Child protection and SEN in schools are sometimes interlinked. However, I believe that SENCOs and teaching assistants (TAs) should routinely be trained in child protection and should work closely with the school’s designated safeguarding lead. Everybody has a safeguarding responsibility in the community, home and school setting. SENCOs coordinate the learning and emotional needs of the child or young person with SEN and TAs usually support the individual child. They are often familiar with many of the events, behaviours and regular interactions that make-up the child’s life, particularly at school. Children express their feelings in many ways and serious case reviews consistently inform us that failing to share information can often contribute to a lack of appropriate intervention to safeguard a child.
School staff are well placed to spot the early signs of abuse but staff are often unsure about what they need to report. Concerns have to be recorded and referred to the designated safeguarding lead, including recording conversations with parents, the young person and other professionals. Chronologies and accurate recording are crucial in collating evidence and also patterns of concern, for example:
- 12/10/15, 10:40 – child arrives late to school at 10:30 stating that mum over slept
- 14/10/15, 15:40 – unknown adult collects child from school. School not notified by parent about unknown adult. Phone call home to parent who says unknown adult is her friend. Parent describes adult and name given, ID requested and child released to adult. Child was not familiar with adult and they left together
- 19/10/15, 13:50 – mum called about collecting child as child unwell. Left message
- 19/10/15, 14:15 – mum called about collecting child again. Left message
- 19/10/15, 14:45 – mum called about collecting child. Left message
- 19/10/15, 15:15 – mum arrives at school to collect child. Informed about messages left and ill child. Mum informs the school she was asleep.
Eventually, the information collated will evidence the lack of improvement, engagement and any patterns of consistent neglect. If a multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) referral is made to Children’s Social Care, this will provide a record of your ongoing concerns.
Staff should also be able to show that they have accessed the appropriate child protection training and discussed their concerns with the designated child protection staff in the setting.
Inappropriate sexualised behaviour displayed by a child is always a concern. Some schools accept this behaviour as part of a child’s condition; for example, autistic children can display certain sexualised behaviours. However, these behaviours make children more vulnerable, as they can be exploited both online and in the community by their peers, familiar adults or strangers. The Child Sexual Exploitation strategy was implemented two years ago and every local safeguarding children board has a CSE strategy. Schools and child care organisations have a duty of care to ensure they train staff and teach all children how to keep themselves safe. Autistic children need specialist support in puberty to ensure they are kept safe and are not exploited.
Many parents of children with SEN have very demanding roles. In some cases, the child will never gain their independence and the demands on parents and carers increase as the child gets older and stronger. Obviously, after a while, this becomes very stressful and if the family is not being supported appropriately, it can lead to strain in the home.
While it is important for schools to understand a parent’s frustrations, it is vital that they remain child focused. If they see that the child is not cared for appropriately or if they notice that the child regularly has dirty hair, is not stimulated appropriately, or seems to be receiving inappropriate intimate care, parents should be called into the school and spoken to about the observations or behaviours in a non-confrontational manner. Parents should be given opportunities to explain the situation and relevant support should be offered. A CAF (Common Assessment Framework) early help assessment tool should be completed with the family, looking at the needs and strengths of the family. Adequate support should be offered and any relevant referrals made. If the family fails to engage with such services and the child continues to suffer, then a referral to social care services under the category of “neglect or emotional abuse”may be appropriate.
Schools, parents and communities should teach children from a young age about self-care and safety at home and in the community. This includes helping them to understand about good and bad touch, hurtful behaviours, personal space and privacy. Children need to understand about privacy with their own bodies. This is now required under the Government’s statutory guidance for schools and colleges, Keeping Children Safe in Education (2015), and inspectors also need to see evidence that this is taught within school and childcare settings.
It is also important that children’s individual circumstances are taken into account. Children with communication difficulties, for example, can struggle with disclosing and discussing abuse that is taking place. It may be a change in their behaviour that provides the clearest indicator that the child is distressed or in trauma.
Raising a child in the modern world is a big challenge for all parents, but it can be particularly difficult for families of children with additional needs. A few years ago, a secondary school contacted me about a 12-year-old girl who had a statement of SEN and who was meeting older men online. She was living with her maternal grandmother as her mother was involved with substance misuse and she was placed with grandmother at four months of age. The school had tried to communicate with the grandmother but she failed to understand the risk involved with the Internet. The child informed the school that parental guidance was in place on her home computer but that it had been set by her, as her grandmother trusted her to activate it. Eventually, her risk-taking escalated and she started to make arrangements to meet the people she communicated with online. I advised the school to complete an in-depth chronology and scrutinise her school file to evidence any concerns regarding risks to the child. They took my advice and referred it back to the Children’s Social Care MASH team. The case was accepted and an assessment was completed.
During puberty, children can be particularly vulnerable as this tends to be a time of personal exploration, which can also coincide with increasing issues with self-esteem and personal identity. Children with additional needs sometimes miss the social queues that can help others to regulate their behaviour and responses and are quick to respond to online or physical requests. They can sometimes be very trusting and desperate to please others. This can trigger episodes of risky behaviours and make them vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
In the UK we have clear legislation and guidance about promoting the wellbeing of children in our education settings. Keeping Children Safe in Education (2015), shaped the roles and responsibilities of the designated safeguarding lead, governing body and whole staff in schools.
If you have concerns about a child, or if you know a person, family or child that may need extra support with safeguarding issues, remember that children’s social care service also has a duty to offer support to children and families. It is important to be aware that by providing appropriate help in a timely fashion we can often help to avert crises that could put a child or adult at risk.
Ann Marie Christian is a specialist education safeguarding consultant, trainer, author and troubleshooter and delivers accredited NSPCC child protection training and safeguarding consultancy to child care/education settings: