Effective inter-agency working is crucial to provide all children with the protection they need
I have the privilege of working every day with professionals from different agencies and disciplines who have impressive specialist skills in helping children achieve their potential. However, I know that an inclusive safeguarding system, where children with SEN receive the same standard of protection from abuse as other children, is something that we have yet to achieve. In addition, I know that research evidence shows that disabled children generally are around three times more likely to be abused than non-disabled children. However, I am confident that, through better inter-agency working, we can make significant progress.
The role of local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) in developing the responses of the children’s workforce and local communities to this challenge is key. Recent changes to the statutory guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children (HM Government 2010), require LSCBs to recruit lay members, and it may be that parents of children with SEN who are active in their communities will want to apply in order to influence and inform practice.
At the moment, LSCBs around the country will be in the process of implementing the practice guidance in relation to safeguarding disabled children, published last year by the government – Safeguarding Disabled Children (DCSF, 2009). Headteacher representatives on LSCBs should be providing advice on the development of new procedures and inter‐agency training programmes. SENCOs and designated safeguarding leads in schools should be downloading the guidance and getting together to discuss their school’s safeguarding arrangements for children with SEN to make sure they are as good as they can be.
Training, supervision and support for practitioners are crucial if they are to safeguard children with SEN. Just as important is the ability to work with other agencies. Every serious case review published after a child has died because of abuse has indicated that poor information sharing between agencies was a contributory factor. However, confidence in inter‐agency working is not something that comes naturally to most people and it needs to be developed explicitly. LSCBs have a specific responsibility to do this.
All practitioners and managers working with children with SEN should ensure they attend inter‐agency safeguarding training offered in their area. On these courses, apart from learning more about their own role in the safeguarding process, they will learn about the complementary roles of other agencies and make direct links with practitioners from other agencies.
Recognising indicators of abuse
On their local LSCB website practitioners will find detailed information about how to recognise indicators of abuse, and what to do about it when they do. However, where children with SEN are concerned, there are complicating factors which need careful consideration.
Children who experience difficulty communicating will experience difficulty telling us that they have been abused. This, unfortunately, means that they are attractive targets for sexual abusers. We need to ensure we do all we can to enable these children to protect themselves, to understand what is abusive and to communicate if they are worried. We need to be able to distinguish between behaviours associated with a particular condition and behaviours associated with abuse, as it is all too easy to attribute everything to the condition without questioning it. As a practitioner, because of this complexity, because of the difficulty in making a judgement about whether something is possibly indicative of abuse, and because of the need to ensure you have all the relevant pieces of the jigsaw before you act, it is highly likely that if you try to make a decision by yourself, you will get it wrong. This is why effective inter‐agency working is so important.
Use of the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) is also particularly helpful. If a CAF has been prepared in relation to a child’s SEN, you will already have a significant amount of relevant information about the child, about other family members and about which other practitioners are involved. A discussion with the designated safeguarding lead in your agency may be the first thing you need to do. There is a small but helpful specialist safeguarding network in every area which can be used to check things out. The SENCO might contact the designated or named nurse to help get expert advice from a paediatrician or clinical psychologist in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).
Sometimes, it is difficult to countenance the possibility of abuse by a parent because we know how very hard parents of children with SEN sometimes work to enable them to have safe and fulfilling lives. An independent view is often very important if you have worked closely for some time with a family to meet their needs.
Children who spend a long time away from home are obviously vulnerable. Where children have many different carers, it can be difficult for investigating agencies to identify a perpetrator if the child cannot communicate easily. This is where accurate and timely recording is essential; if a practitioner has recorded that a child was well and that nothing untoward happened whilst s/he was working with them, it is then harder for someone else with something to hide to allege that an injury occurred during that time.
Safe employment practice
Since 2006, the children’s workforce (statutory and third sector) has been subject to rigorous checks via the way interviews and pre‐employment checks are carried out, through the Criminal Records Bureau and through centrally held records of employers’ concerns. Employers are acutely conscious of their safeguarding responsibilities and are required to report all allegations of abuse to the local authority designated officer, a safeguarding specialist who oversees how they are dealt with and reports regularly to regional government officers to ensure consistency of decision‐making in accordance with best practice.
LSCBs have a statutory quality assurance role in relation to member agencies’ safeguarding arrangements. Once arrangements for developing practitioners’ responses to safeguarding children with SEN have been put in place, an excellent way of monitoring progress is through inter‐agency audit. LSCBs have a specific responsibility to prioritise for proactive work groups of children who are more vulnerable than the general population and therefore it is appropriate that safeguarding children with SEN is an early subject for audit in their annual audit programmes. A number of cases evaluated against clear standards drawn from good practice guidance can result in a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) action plan which will drive up local practice standards further. Detailed scrutiny of the quality of practice, proactive support for practitioners, and the involvement of families are all essential if we are to move closer to our goal of an inclusive safeguarding system.
Hilary Owen is Assistant Executive Director Safeguarding, Health and Social Care for Barnsley Children’s Services:
This article was first published in issue 48 (September/October 2010) of SEN Magazine.