EXPERT COMMENT: Gary Norton on protecting children from abuse

Considering the recent news of historical abuse cases in UK schools, residential homes and football clubs, Social Work Lecturer Gary Norton at the University of Manchester explains how legislation has changed to protect children more effectively but stresses that more still needs to be done today to ensure the safety of our young people, especially children with disabilities.

Tracing legislation for children as far back as the Poor Laws and the Ragged Schools movement in the 1800s, there has been a growing need to protect and safeguard children. Humanitarians like John Pounds - a cobbler from Portsmouth and the founder of the Ragged Schools movement - used his shop as a base for educational activity for children from low socio-economic backgrounds. Even so, what isn’t always known is that his concern was in part to educate his disabled nephew.

Whilst many of these philanthropic movements had the welfare of disabled children at the heart of their thinking, little did we know until recently that other forms of educational establishments would spring up, manifesting the wrong kind of care for the most vulnerable of society’s children.

I recently appeared on BBC North West Tonight to discuss the historical abuse of disabled children at the Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool during the 1950s. What the survivors described was a catalogue of corporal punishment and cruel behaviour towards them by the headteacher at the time, Margaret McLenan, who has since died.I explained that during this period, the corporal punishment of children was accepted, and it wasn’t until the intervention of the Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in the Court Lees Affair that an appetite to protect children from such methods began to emerge. Indeed, caning children wasn’t outlawed in our schools until the early 1980s.

The first legislation focusing on the need to listen to and nurture children came in the form of the Children Act (1989) and the paramountcy principle, which places children at the centre of our thinking. It also created the idea of parental responsibility with a focus on the child enshrined within section 1 of the Act, namely the child’s ‘welfare checklist.’ Even with the existence of bespoke legislation providing specific protection regarding certain issues - e.g. domestic abuse, the principles of this Act and in particular the statutory obligations and decision-making processes it provides to protect children remain paramount today.

The Children Act (1989), the Adoption and Children Act (2002) and indeed the recent Children and Families Act (2014) remain unequivocally concerned with the welfare of the child, and the idea of listening to their voice has never been more prominent in social work practice than it is today. This is evidenced with the idea of the team around the child and the numbers of professional eyes that are now watchful for signs of abuse.

What the Children Act (1989) gave us was a process of intervention, and procedures for investigating abuse in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Section 47 of the Act legislates for Local Authorities to be able to investigate allegations of abuse, and section 31 provides for permanent interventions if necessary.

Having said that, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the ethos of the Children Act (1989) has always been to keep children within their families - with an emphasis that the child is not only safe, but also reaching their full potential in life. These are the overarching messages that are contained within safeguarding today.

Where things have gone wrong for children in the past and where they can still go wrong today isn’t so much to do with legislation, as children’s law is now clear and developed and organisations like Ofsted exist solely to regulate and inspect the quality of our schools and care homes. Instead, it is more related to pressures within social work and safeguarding practices. High caseloads for social workers certainly do not help the situation, as they can be spread too thinly at times. Equally, it can be difficult to motivate committed staff and keep them within a profession where there is constant criticism of what they do.

Gary Norton
The problem here is that the social care system for children - whilst effective when deployed properly - isn’t infallible. Therefore, while we expect to see the reduction in the instances of physical harm to children, it remains a fact of life that the potential for children to be harmed is always likely to remain.
Gary Norton

We are entering a more sophisticated phase in our society when we know more about the impact of abuse on the emotional and long term well-being of children, but we still need to develop systems that are sophisticated enough to meet the aim of protecting children from harm. In the case of children with disabilities, this means more research is necessary into understanding their needs from their perspectives, and an acceptance that children with disabilities have additional layers of vulnerability that need to be carefully considered in contemporary policy and practice.

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