National guidance for child protection in Scotland: protecting disabled children from abuse and neglect

Notes for all practitioners including those working in: children and family social work; health; education; residential care; early years; youth services; youth justice; police; independent and third sector; and adult services who might be supporting parents with disabled children or involved in the transition between child and adult services.

7. Working with family members and carers of disabled children

Most parents and carers of disabled children provide safe and loving homes. However, there must be awareness that this is not always the case: some fail to offer acceptable care, overwhelmed by the pressures upon them and their family or receiving inadequate support from services and some do deliberately harm their children.

As in all cases of suspected child abuse, it is important to develop cooperative working relationships as far as possible with the families and carers of disabled children. This is challenging when the parents and carers are themselves under suspicion as set out in the National Guidance and particularly difficult with some parents and carers who are very hostile or superficially cooperative. Some parents and carers of disabled children may exhibit similar behaviour and the possibility that threatening and hostile behaviour towards workers may indicate similar behaviour towards the children must always be considered; where parents are apparently compliant, the advice to maintain healthy scepticism is just as relevant. There should also be awareness that families with disabled children may also have issues about the misuse of alcohol and drugs, mental health, domestic abuse just as in other families. Additionally, the parent or carer may be disabled and not receiving the support they require to meet the additional demands of being a parent.

There are also some particular issues which may apply when a child is disabled:

  • Some parents and carers are reluctant to seek help from professionals, particularly those in statutory services, when under pressure as they are afraid of being labelled as unable to cope and harbour a fear that if they do seek help their children will be removed from their care. Early intervention with these families can be, therefore, more difficult.
  • Often parents and carers feel they have not had sufficient help and support with their disabled child and describe having to fight for any services they have received. Not surprisingly, then, some families are particularly hostile to intervention - especially when they perceive this as the blame being put on them by services who have previously failed them.
  • Services for disabled children are encouraged to work with parents and carers as partners and, in reality, parents usually understand the needs of their disabled child best. This can, though, create complexity when there are suspicions of abuse. The parents and carers may be seen as part of the team around the child by those professionals who have been working with them and there can be resistance to re-assessing a situation which shows them in a different light. Sometimes parents will actively try to enlist the help and support of these professionals and dealing with these issues can divert focus away from the central issue of the welfare and safety of the child.
  • There is a general difficulty for all who work with families of disabled children of over identifying with the parents' situation. This is particularly the case for professionals who may have been working with the family for sometime but it can affect all who come into contact with the family. Workers may feel sorry for parents struggling to cope, or indeed to view them as "heroic carers". The child becomes seen as a passive recipient of parental care, which is disempowering and may divert attention away from the parenting needs of the children. This is significant in a child protection context, where a risk assessment must include consideration of the adequacy or safety of parenting, as opposed to the provision of care.
  • Parents and carers may feel that only they are able to understand their child and be able to interpret their wishes. This may lead to an oversight of the child's wishes.

Opportunities to reflect, discuss and challenge thinking in respect of these issues must therefore be made available to ensure the provision of child centred, ethical and disability aware practice in a child protection context.


Email: Sandra Aitken

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