Over the last few weeks there have been two valuable reports looking at young people’s experience of abuse and how they report it. One came from the English Children’s Commissioner and the other from the NSPCC. CareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy's blog looks at some of their key messages:
The Children’s Commissioner’s report adopts a wide research framework to look at how children and young people perceive abuse, and more particularly, at how they identify it and share their experiences. Methods included a structured literature review, a content analysis of an online peer support site, interviews with vulnerable young people, and focus groups involving children, parents and practitioners.
NSPCC’s report provides a useful insight into the experiences of a group of young adults who reported experience of abuse in childhood. The categories of abuse used to recruit study participants included sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse and the witnessing of domestic/family violence.
Some of the most important messages I took from looking at both reports include:
• Young people who are abused or neglected still tend to come to the attention of services through their behaviour and demeanour rather than through explicitly disclosing abuse
• There is a pressing need for professionals to look for signs and symptoms rather than rely on verbal telling, particularly when children are young
• And to remember that telling can be emotionally, very difficult, for the children and young people involved
• Disclosures can often come long after the relevant incidents, especially where early-age sexual abuse is concerned.
• Building a trusting relationship and talking directly with children may lead to disclosure, particularly where there is a persistent response from an obviously caring practitioner
• Teachers and youth workers were found to be particularly important as people to tell
• Although social workers were valued for the holistic support they can provide, few initial disclosures were made directly to them (even where they had contact with the families concerned)
• Having a focus on early intervention is important not only because there is evidence that it can stop problems escalating, but also because it can give children access to help when problems of abuse or neglect are hidden from view, and/or fall below the threshold for more formal intervention
The examples above simply illustrate some of the points made in what are two substantial reports, both of which also contain useful material on the key facilitators of, and barriers to, telling. The Commissioner’s report, in particular offers some really helpful new structures for considering the process of disclosure, including a framework to help practitioners understand the complexities of recognition, telling and getting help.
But I think there are two key related issues identified, but not fully explored, in the reports that need much further debate.
The first is that much disclosure is made by children, not to professionals, but to family members, particularly mothers, and to other informal contacts including friends. But this reality is not perhaps as fully discussed as it should be, either in the reports, or more generally.
The policy and practice messages that are delivered tend to focus, unsurprisingly, on the role of professionals, and, with absolute, evidence-based necessity, on the way they can better engage with children.
However, I think the realisation that many disclosure processes start in, or near the home, means that we need to think more about what can be done to help and support family members – particularly mothers – to come forward, on behalf of the children concerned.
And, we need more discussion about effective ways of working with, and through families, as well as directly with children.
The second key concern I had as I read the reports was that they generally only look at the disclosure experience from the child’s point of view. Before I go further that is unquestionably the right place to focus.
However, effective communication is always a two-way street. The reports let us see how children and young people viewed their disclosure experience, and some of the attitudes and behaviours they saw as helping or hindering in the support they received.
But if we are to have a truly rounded view of these processes that really helps professionals, in particular, to respond more positively to cries for help, knowing what specific experiences felt like, from their perspective, is an important dimension.
To illustrate: Both reports note that children often try to communicate their difficulties in non-verbal, behaviour-oriented ways. It would be interesting to know how professionals viewed those aspects of disclosure in some real-life cases.
For example, can they see that the behaviour was there, and obvious, but that perhaps insufficient attention was paid to it? Or were the signs so muted, or wrapped up in on-going behaviour patterns, that spotting them was even more difficult than we (or the child concerned) might have imagined?
Or, since much of the discussion is – highly appropriately – based on children’s recollections of disclosure, what might be the relevant professional’s perspective of the clarity of telling?
These are difficult points to make because they may seem to be distracting focus from the children concerned or questioning the veracity of their accounts. That is far from my aim in raising them.
I am doing so, because, to me, they form an important part of the picture that should be openly debated to ensure that we have as complete an understanding as possible of all the forces at play, specifically, and only, so that professionals can better protect the children and young people with whom they have contact.