A new inquiry into child neglect asks what makes happy and healthy children
Perhaps the Beatles were right and all you need is love, mused Richard Holloway.
Addressing Action for Children Scotland’s ‘Neglecting to Care?’ event in Edinburgh last week, Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh and author, led a debate about how best to tackle neglect and create healthy and happy children.
Holloway, alongside early years champion and former health minister, Susan Deacon and journalist Lesley Riddoch, has been asked by the children’s charity to lead an independent national inquiry into child neglect. In testament to its independence, however, the panel decided to flip the question on its head.
“We already know that many children in Scotland are not getting the best start in life,” said Holloway.
“In a relatively wealthy country we have children whose lives are marked by poor health, malnutrition, lack of nurture and care. So we decided to start by asking not what is neglect, but what is the opposite. What makes a happy and healthy child?”
It’s a question we already know the answer to, he said.
“Love and the caring that is its hallmark, good food, fresh air, clean, dry, safe homes and harmonious communities, the opportunity to learn and develop to their full capacity.
“But if the answer is so straightforward why do we find it so difficult to achieve its universal application,” Holloway asked.
Despite best efforts and intentions, almost one in 10 young adults were severely neglected by parents or guardians during childhood, according to the NSPCC.
Research by Action for Children Scotland has revealed that almost a third – 30 per cent – of Scots have been worried about the welfare or safety of a child they know or is living in their area. The survey, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government and conducted by the University of Stirling, examined the scale and nature of neglect in Scotland. It found that 83 per cent of professionals (social workers, teachers, health workers and nursery staff) in Scotland have come into contact with a child they are concerned is suffering from neglect, however, 43 per cent of those professionals said they feel powerless to help, citing a lack of services and resources as barriers.
Neglect has a “severe and enduring” impact on children, Marion Macleod, senior policy and parliamentary manager, Children in Scotland tells Holyrood.
“It has been well demonstrated that attachment is correlated with lots of aspects of development – empathy, communication, brain development are all associated with children who are attached well and neglected children in many cases are not.”
Neglect can also coexist with other types of abuse, she explains. However, it receives comparatively little attention; the neglect can be neglected.
“I think one of the reasons that Action for Children wanted to look at this particularly is, I suppose, a lot of our child protection in recent years has focused on actual abuse – and neglect, or when I was a social worker we would call it the technical term, failure to thrive, has become less prominent…”
And yet, child neglect is more prevalent than physical and sexual abuse – accounting for 44 per cent of all child-protection registrations in Scotland.
Part of the difficulty may lie in understanding neglect and knowing how to define it. It can also begin much earlier than people realise, Macleod explains.
“De facto neglect is not necessarily things people recognise as that. People might see it as a lifestyle choice to overeat and take no exercise but the impact of overeating in pregnancy has [a] very significant effect on the developing baby.” A lot of damage can be done to a child by neglecting their wellbeing even at that early stage, she said.
“If that baby was not inside the mother but was outside, the child-protection system would be swinging into action. But because it is a baby that is not yet out in the world, harmful things are happening that people think it is maybe not desirable but that is their choice as an expectant mother.” Early intervention and prevention is key, argues Macleod, adding that Children in Scotland, which also held a seminar on this issue recently, believes that the argument for universal services is “indisputable”.
“We are firmly of a view that the best way to optimise children’s wellbeing is if we have a universal provision of support for children and their families. If you look at countries that do well, that is delivered by a universal early childhood education and care service that meets the developmental needs of children while at the same time supporting parents in the path of parenting that child effectively.” While Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont recently called for a national inquiry into child protection, Macleod states she has seen more child-protection reviews in her lifetime “than you can shake a stick at.” Rather than introducing an even more complicated system of reporting and bureaucracy, she argues we should be heeding the lessons from success elsewhere and providing good quality, universal services that support parents and optimise the wellbeing of all our children.
The Scottish Government’s stated ambition is to make Scotland the best place in the world for children to grow up. Speaking at the event in Edinburgh, the Minister for Children and Young People, Aileen Campbell MSP, said the Government is committed to these principles of early intervention and prevention. She said it is seeking to underpin its efforts with legislation and the new Children and Young People Bill will help to strengthen children’s rights and enable them to flourish.
“This is a fundamental step in our ambition to make Scotland a nation at the forefront of children’s services, one that continues to find better ways to offer better life chances to every child in Scotland,” she added.
In launching the inquiry, Holloway expressed the panel’s intention to listen to and learn from action already under way in Scotland’s communities. Examples were shared, such as the El Sistema children’s orchestra in Raploch where around 80 per cent of the area’s children are now involved in the Big Noise – one of those involved joked that you can’t throw something in the area without hitting a cellist; as well as Action for Children’s “magical” Roots of Empathy programme which enlists baby teachers in classrooms to help reduce aggression among schoolchildren and raise social and emotional competence. This evidence will be reflected in the panel’s report in which it will make specific recommendations for tackling child neglect in Scotland. The report will be published by September this year and the charity hopes it will influence policy, strategy and service delivery.
“Where the neglect is caused by public indifference, professional omission or parental deficiency, we need to focus on solutions,” said Allan Burns, Action for Children’s chair.
“We need to affect public policy, affect the change in policy by putting children’s wellbeing right at the centre of public life.
“We need recognition of the kind of actions that can work and can sow the seed of sustainable, ongoing improvement.”