DSCB: Spotlight on children with disabilities

In June 2015 the DSCB considered the issue of children and young people with learning difficulties and disabilities. Safeguarding children with disabilities is a challenge for everyone working with children, young people and families because they are vulnerable, and are therefore 3.4 times more likely to be abused than a child with no disabilities. Disabilities and learning difficulties can also be used as a smokescreen to cover up cases of abuse and neglect.

The DSCB met with professionals from health, education and children and family services to discuss the issue, with the aim of producing an action plan to improve safeguarding measures and procedures.

The terminology used to define children with disabilities varies, including children with additional needs, special educational needs or learning difficulties. All workers and volunteers need to be aware of this and take into consideration when assessing or working with a child.

Claire May, head teacher at Pathfield School and representative of Special Headteachers Association Devon (SHAD), who opened the event highlighted the importance of listening to the children we know and work with. Not only to their voice, but listening to a child’s behaviour (aggression, language etc) is important in understanding their needs and providing the correct support.

The professional’s perspective…

Denis Onley, Professional lead for Social Work Integrated Children’s Service, outlined the current situation on both a national and local scale.  Denis revealed that there are over 770,000 children under 16 in the UK that are living with disabilities, 6% of the total child population.

11% of all children in the UK are subject to child protection plans and 3.8 % of those children are disabled. Children with disabilities are often more vulnerable and subject to the following risk factors:

  • They have fewer contacts outside the family and home environment
  • They may have intimate care from numerous carers
  • Have limited capacity to resist or avoid abuse
  • May worry about complaining about abusive behaviour resulting in the loss of care
  • Have poor communication skills
  • Are more likely to live in low income families, poor housing, dept and deprivation
  • Live in lone parent families
  • May have disabled siblings – adding extra stress and pressure on family
  • Face barriers to education, leisure and play opportunities
  • Face bullying from peers

In Devon, there are 1,655 children with disabilities known to the Integrated Childrens Service, 594 of which have allocated case workers, 101 are in care and 20 have child protection plans in place. Denis noted that this figure is very low, and it is likely that there are a number of children not known to the system.

Challenges associated with child protection cases for disabled children and young people include:

  • Difficulties find alternative carers
  • Parents avoiding concerns
  • Delays in putting support in place or resolving issues
  • Lack of focused plans, resulting in ineffective monitoring
  • Information available in Devon is poor, a number of children with disabilities are not known to social care
  • Joint working is not effective
  • Safeguarding processes need to be refreshed
  • The Devon and Safeguarding Children Board need to explore this issue to understand childrens need and the realistic numbers in Devon

The parent’s perspective…

Parents of disabled children were asked to feedback on the process they had been through and how they felt about the support they had received.

Some parents said that they felt positive about health involvement in their child’s case, and that they had a good relationship with their child’s school. In addition, some parents said they understood the need for a child protection plan. One parent also commented on their positive relationship with the paediatrician, who they felt “really cares about my child”.

In other cases, some parents found having two social workers confusing and changes in psychiatrists meant that parents and children had to keep re-telling their story. One parent reported feeling “let down by social workers” and others said that they didn’t understand what a DAF is and felt that there was duplication of paperwork.

In some cases, a lack of consistency in transport arrangements had caused issues and other parents felt they had been let down by their GP or Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).


Philippa Geddes, DSCB Board Manager, presented the findings of a multi-agency case audit (MACA) focused on 12 cases where children had disabilities or learning difficulties. The MACAs involved parents and frontline workers involved in the cases from across Devon.

The MACAs revealed good examples of:

  • Positive examples of multi-agency working (including special schools, occupational therapists, social care and Integrated Childrens Service)
  • Excellent examples of work by special schools in Devon
  • Good examples of advocacy (although this was ad hoc)
  • Examples of good practice including early diagnosis and appropriate social worker allocation

The MACAs also revealed some elements that aren’t working so well:

  • The child protection arrangements and procedures often leave people feeling confused. The experience appears process lead rather than child lead
  • Lack of placement options
  • Lack of consistency of staff
  • Different agency systems and protocols create barriers for communication and multi-agency working
  • Access to safeguarding supervision is inconsistent
  • Transition from childrens to adults services is not timely
  • School transport changes and inconsistency causes problems
  • The voice of the child is not being heard at all times
  • Not all special schools have a named nurse
  • Disguised compliance or lack of commitment by parents
  • In four of the cases, the child’s disability was used as a smoke screen for neglect and emotional abuse
  • Access to services in rural areas is poor
  • Think Fathers – the current process is overwhelmingly focused on the mother


The DSCB has agreed to fund places for partner organisations on the Child Protection and Disability course offered by Dialogue Consultants. Contact Dialogue to book your place.

As a result of the review into children with disabilities in Devon, the DSCB Executive will meet to assess the findings in order to produce an action plan to improve safeguarding and the procedures in place.

Details of the action plan will be published later in the year.