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The Ofsted, and Action for Children research on neglect

You may have heard that Ofsted this week published some research on neglect, the over-arching theme being that some children are being left in neglectful situations for too long


On the same day, Action for Children published their research into neglect

“Child Neglect : The Scandal that never breaks”


the over-arching theme there being that neglect is happening to far more children than you might expect – their headline figures being


73% of UK children know another child who is suffering from neglect. Urgent action is needed to help children and families get the help they need.


  • Since 2011, around a third (32% in 2013) of professionals have felt powerless to intervene when they have concerns about child neglect
  • 35% of professionals say Government spending cuts have made it more difficult to intervene in cases of child neglect. In particular, 65% of social workers said cuts impeded their ability to intervene in cases
  • 94% of the public agree people should do something when they are worried about a child but 45% want more information on where to get help


Of course, the big headline really depends on (a) how you define the term neglect and (b) whether you think children are the best people to identify neglect in other children that they know


Their major demand, that the Government ought to produce a national coherent strategy on child neglect, is a worthwhile one. Perhaps the one two punch of Ofsted and Action for Children saying similar things on the same day will have an impact. (I suspect that Ofsted have much more clout, because they don’t need to scare Government into action, they just have to scare Local Authorities that if they don’t have a Neglect Policy, they’ll get a bad Ofsted review)


There’s a bit in the Action for Children research that made me scratch my head. The researchers asked professionals what the barriers were that stopped them intervening on child neglect.



There are the usual suspects – lack of resources, gaps in services, the point at which intervention can take place being too high. But then there’s “It’s not my job to intervene”


10% of the social workers asked gave that as their answer. 10%….


That is very worrying to me. It’s at page 18 if you don’t believe me



The Ofsted research then. They looked at 124 cases, drawn from eleven local authorities. Those local authorities were a spread of inner-city and rural counties, from the North, the South, the East and the West   (though the heaviest proportion was the North West – Liverpool, Manchester, Lancashire, Wigan). They looked at the records, spoke to professionals, to children, to parents and to carers.

 The key findings :-


      The quality of professional practice in cases of neglect overall was found to be too variable, although in some of the cases examined at this inspection, children were making progress.

      Nearly half of assessments in the cases seen either did not take sufficient account of the family history, or did not adequately convey or consider the impact of neglect on the child. Some assessments focused almost exclusively on the parents’ needs rather than analysing the impact of adult behaviours on children.In a small number of cases this delayed the action local agencies took to protect children from suffering further harm.

      While the quality of written plans was found to be too variable, there was evidence of some very good support for children that was meeting the short-term needs of the family. However, there was very little evidence of longer-term support being provided to enable sustained change in the care given to the children.

      Some authorities are using effective methods to map and measure the impact of neglect on children over time and to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions. This results in timely and improved decision-making in some cases. However, not all local authorities have such systems in place to support social workers in monitoring the impact of neglect on children and the effectiveness of their interventions.

      Non-compliance and disguised compliance by parents were common features in cases reviewed. Although some multi-agency groups adopted clear strategies to manage such behaviour, this was not evident in all cases. Where parents were not engaging with plans, and outcomes for children were not improving, professionals did not consistently challenge parents.

      Drift was identified at some stage in the child’s journey in a third of all long-term cases examined, delaying appropriate action to meet the needs of children and to protect them from further harm. Drift was caused by a range of factors, including inadequate assessments, poor planning, parents failing to engage and in a small number of cases, lack of understanding by professionals of the cumulative impact of neglect on children’s health and development. Drift and delay have serious consequences for children, resulting in them continuing to be exposed to neglect.

      Front-line social workers and managers have access to research findings in relation to neglect, although the extent to which this is incorporated into practice varies. It is by exception that front-line social workers use specific research to support their work. The impact of training on professional practice with regard to neglect is neither systematically evident nor routinely evaluated.

      Routine performance monitoring and reporting arrangements to LSCBs infrequently profile neglect. Therefore most boards do not receive or collect neglect data except in respect of the number of child protection plans where the category is recorded as neglect. Most boards were not able to provide robust evidence of their evaluation and challenge about the effectiveness of multi-agency working to tackle neglect.

      Those local authorities providing the strongest evidence of the most comprehensive action to tackle neglect were more likely to have a neglect strategy and/or a systematic improvement programme across policy and practice, involving the development of specific approaches to neglect.

      The challenge for local authorities and their partners is to ensure that best practice in cases of neglect is shared in order to drive improvement.



They make a series of recommendations for Government (to review social work training to have mandatory material on neglect, to require Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards to have a strategy on neglect for their local area) ,

for Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (to gather data on neglect and assess and monitor it in their area, to ensure front-line training on neglect for professionals, to get agencies working together on the issues, to ensure that all staff know how to escalate concerns, to ensure that all training represents best practice and contemporary research)

and on Local Authorities (robust management oversight of neglect cases to avoid drift, better methods of assessment, proper child protection plans for neglect cases, specialist training in neglect, consistent levels of threshold for intervention, a shift in focus on written evidence presented to Courts so that it is clear, concise and explicitly describes the cumulative impact of neglect on the daily life of the child)


The last is interesting, as we brace ourselves for the standardised model of social work reports (having seen the version that went out to consultation, I have serious doubts that this model is going to deliver what Ofsted are recommending)


The body of the report picks up as a theme that social work reports and assessments focused on the adults and the parents issues rather than analysis of the impact of this on the children. “Are children getting lost in the assessment in the same way in which they are lost within their own families?”

 and a later quotation  (from a Director of Children’s Services)

“social workers and schools may become desensitised to neglect”



The headline that was grabbed by the Press (they toss a coin, I think, to decide on any individual day whether social workers are jackbooted child-snatching fascists, or clueless Mavis-Reilly-esque do-gooders who are hopelessly ineffectual)   was that parents were given too many chances


66. In the cohort of cases where progress for children was not being achieved, a common feature was parental non-compliance or ‘disguised compliance’. Professionals did not consistently demonstrate clear strategies to manage this behaviour. For example in a small number of cases, the Public Law Outline (PLO) was used to address non-compliance and while this was effective in the majority of cases, where parents breached PLO agreements subsequent action was not always taken. This apparent reluctance by professionals to act assertively and in line with written agreements meant that cases were not escalated at the right time for children and there was a delay in action to protect them.

67. In some of the multi-agency meetings held during the thematic inspection professionals reflected on their practice and accepted, with hindsight, that they had been manipulated by parents. For example, in one case when a mother and father had a new baby, the child was made subject to a child protection plan because the parents both had a history of drug misuse and had had previous children removed due to neglect. When the mother tested positive for cocaine use and the father positive for heroin use, the case was escalated to PLO, but stepped down again very quickly when the parents appeared to cooperate with the plan. The child was removed from the parents some months later due to further evidence of parental drug misuse. The child protection chair told the inspector that they should have been more challenging of the lack of progress at a much earlier stage in the case, and described the parents as ‘very plausible’, ‘always coming up with a reason for not completing tasks that were required of them’.

68. In other cases parents were given too many chances because professionals had not fully recognised or assessed the level of non-compliance and were carrying on regardless. Overall, the evidence in these longer-term cases is of a failure by professionals and their managers to be consistent in identifying non-compliance and disguised compliance, and in some cases failing to assertively challenge parents who were not engaging with plans.


For local authority lawyers, Ofsted makes comments about their role in the process too (not particularly flattering comments)


74 . Further delays were apparent in some cases because of inconsistency in decisions about whether the threshold for proceedings had been met. A small minority of local authority legal advisers held the view that some courts were not giving enough consideration to the family history when making decisions as to whether the threshold for proceedings had been met. However, most legal advisers reported that the courts and Cafcass were well-informed about research findings and the significance of a history of parental neglect. In a further small minority of cases local authorities appeared too ready to accept legal advice that the threshold for proceedings had not been met. This suggests there was some lack of clarity as to who holds responsibility for making decisions to initiate court proceedings to protect children from significant harm.

75. The general view of legal representatives was that the quality of written and verbal evidence provided by childcare professionals in legal proceedings was not consistently robust. This resulted in some cases failing to progress to proceedings or, when cases did reach the court arena, not achieving the required outcome. Evidence needed to be gathered more effectively, risks and protective factors expressed more clearly, and the impact or potential impact of neglect on children identified. Partner agencies needed to collate evidence of the impact of neglect, including the impact on children’s behaviour and emotional development, from a very early stage.On the basis of this thematic inspection the lack of clarity around thresholds for legal proceedings is a signficiant concern, given that as a result of this some children remain in situations of neglect for too long


Of course, one of the issues on ‘threshold’ is that we are talking about two different things – the s38 or s31 ‘threshold’ of significant harm is very easy to identify, we all know that when we see it. But the ‘threshold’ of “If you go to Court and ask for these children to be removed will you succeed?”   is much more dependent on local Courts, local Guardians, knowing how your Courts view neglect, knowing how bad it has to be before you would meet that test, knowing whether your social worker’s evidence will be compelling in the witness box or tentative. How old are the children, how will they be affected, are you going to find foster placements to meet their needs? Of course the answer to the second question varies greatly from case to case, there is never a one-size fits all answer.

It is, of course, very important not to conflate the two questions


  1. Is the threshold met
  2. Is the evidence strong enough to persuade a Court to do anything about it



Neglect is always the hardest type of case to make decisions about – almost always you have missed the right time to issue the proceedings. Neglect is very rarely a steady downward slope, it is more of an undulation, a series of peaks and troughs – little improvements as support is provided, dips as the family struggles. And it always feels that the impact on the children of neglect is viewed less significantly by Courts than a broken leg, an allegation of sexual abuse. Even though the long-term impact of neglect can be very corrosive, there’s a feeling that it isn’t that bad, or that it has to get very bad indeed before anyone is willing to draw a line and say “no more”

As local authorities come under pressure to drop their numbers of looked after children (and they are doing, and a large part of that pressure is from Ofsted themselves), neglect represents the soft target for that reduction.


Not many local authorities are going to increase their tolerance for physical abuse at home, or sexual abuse at home. Which leaves, if you want to raise your threshold and lower your number of court proceedings and looked after children, tolerating more neglect at home.

Unless you’re going to put in services and support to change neglectful care into good enough care, but that’s a big ask at a time of cuts and reduction in services.


[It might, of course, be a good thing that there’s a recalibration of what is ‘good enough’ care where the State should support but not intervene, and what requires care proceedings and separation – one can’t argue with the fact that the number of children coming into court proceedings has gone up massively over the last ten years, and how do we know whether we are now at the right number and we used to be leaving too many children at home, or whether we were right ten years ago and over-reacting now?  ]

About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

9 responses

  1. toni macleod aka stella

    given that emotional abuse is apparently ‘neglect’ or it is up here in durham how the hell is neglect so low of a number in case loads !?

    id love to see a document that tallied up just how much each abuse allegation totted up on work loads n court applications eg.
    emotional abuse
    sexual abuse
    physical abuse
    although i do agree with the coin toss press analogy its bloody true too lol ! xx

  2. toni macleod aka stella

    actually on after thought i wonder how many of these ”researchers” bothered researching bowlby’s research and information on attachments and bonding with parental figures that shows it is better for a child to live in a neglectful home than to be separated from primary carers for their emotional and psychological well being and future life prospects

    needless to say i return as ever to my point of social work is meant to be work with the community and therefore every resource possible should be put in place to keep a family together unless there is physical or sexual abuse involved whether that be cooks cleaners drug rehabilitation volunteer drivers cookery courses parenting courses anger management domestic violence education even down to social worker home visits as alarm calls for school runs

    if the local authorities arent bothered to do this then the future looks an extremely bleak mixture of uneducated parents care leavers and a older generation filled with PTSD sufferers from having their kids removed by jumped up lazy social workers who cbfa to fulfill their job roles and utilize their resources to ensure families are kept together and isnt replaced in the oxford dictionary with ……

    Family – noun
    a collection of children and family members scattered across a vast distance of the country tied by genetic dna make up placed in foster care by a local authority following a online auction advertisement separated at birth with no knowledge of one another due to a computer system glitch loosing all relevant gynecology charting leading to inbreeding and birth abnormalities

    in fact in some families it isnt that far wrong now :p lmfao xx

  3. An interesting account – thank you.
    Action for children and Ofsted? Something of an unholy alliance. In recent months both organisations have tended to display a somewhat punitive attitude towards parents. Both show far too much self-righteous certainty about what counts as neglect, how it should be tackled but at the same time remaining silent on its causes.

  4. Ashamed to be British

    Lazy social workers … that about sums it up.
    My DIL reported that she saw her neighbour pick his 2 yr old up by the head and scream in his face, the sw said “well I’m not here about that am I” she did not go back & make a mention let alone a referral
    Her sw also deemed certain family members to be the ‘safe factors’ despite making no assessment and ignoring the concerns of alcohol and drug misuse … toni macleod aka stella has seen first hand how well that worked out for the child, including burns and serious head injuries, all ignored because she had made up her mind and would rather see the child dead than admit she was wrong

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  7. The proselytism of state intervention into family life.

    We are on the path to a dystopia where ALL children are brought up by “professionals”, like that written about in books like the sleeper awakes.

    The behaviour of the government and “charities” reminds of of the triangular trade of slavery, ships travelling from Europe to Africa(to buy and trade for captives) to America (to sell the captives into slavery) and back to Europe(to sell cotton,sugar,rum).

    The government’s need is to lessen its dependents (and it always has been), “charities” are extensions of the government and full of the establishments friends (many actually placed there by the government of the day). The government basically pump millions into the “charites” and the “charities” pump out propaganda in the form of “research” ( choosing the “research” technique that delivers your (political) outcome (and meets your need) is easy), the public cry out(well the media do especially the neoliberal ones) and the government (children’s services and other “professionals”) move in and remove children and take them to foster care placements and children’s homes, owned and run by the “charities”. Vested interests everywhere you look and social workers.

    After reading the “research” by action for children, I concluded that the government still want a national database on all children and would like to have a named person for every child (in the rest of the UK ,joining scotland).

    Its like the baby bonds report by the sutton trust that was talked about in the daily mail about a week ago,its conclusion for risk factors of insecure bonds were the usual suspects, Poverty
    ,Mental health, Young parenting,Disabilities and Low-quality early childcare (and that these insecure bonds effect social mobility via education), but no mention of risks that have already been concluded by other studies (not associated with social work or the governments need) of bonds being effected by middle class parents that put their children in nurseries from the age of 6 months for 50 plus hours a week and the conclusion that for every hour spent by these children in nurseries without one to one care they are more likely to be expelled from PRIMARY school because of bad behaviour… HOW can these parents form secure or positive bonds with their children, when they drop them off at nursery at 7 in the morning and pick them up at 6pm and then put them to bed an hour after getting home..? But these parents are not government dependents.

    Click to access babybondsreport.pdf

  8. Asb
    As I recall, Bowlby’s work and the attachment theory he derived from it, was with children in instututional settings. Attachment theory has developed hugely and differently since Bowlby’s time.

    My arithmetic is appalling but I don’t see where this 73% figure of children who know other children who are suffering from neglect comes from, nor do I see how the assertion is helpful in the wider and much more worrying context of neglect. Neglect is a real problem and this gloss is irrelevant, surely? Does it come from Ofsted report itself? I suspect not.

    The inspectors looked at 124 cases ie cases already open to social services, but what you’d need to know, as a starting point, from this is would be how many children, who were not cases open to social care know of other children who meet identified criteria of neglect. And you’d have to have some way of verifying the children’s concerns, too.

    • Ashamed to be British

      Absolutely, nowadays our children think they’re neglected because they don’t have Nike trainers, the latest X-Box, money pouring out of a tap and this year’s car for their 17th birthday!
      Poor things

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