Monday, 16 January 2012

The Definition of Neglect

Last week saw three big children’s charities (Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society and the NSPCC) address the House of Commons Education Committee as part of its inquiry into child protection.

The session started with a discussion of neglect. While I very much agreed with the general tenor of the charities’ arguments, namely that neglect is a neglected issue that poses particular problems for child protection systems, the discussion seemed to me to rapidly become unhelpfully pedantic. At times, indeed, it seemed to resemble the discourse of medieval theologians on the issue of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

It was the NSPCC’s Phillip Noyes who introduced the subject of the definition of neglect. He was concerned about what he thought were discrepancies between various definitions. He called for a new definition, although he had to admit that he did not have a proposal for one.

In particular he seemed anxious that the definition of the criminal offence of neglect in Section 1 (2) a of the Children and Young Person’s Act 1933 , which speaks of causing injury to a child’s health as a result of a failure “… to provide adequate food, clothing, medical aid or lodging for (a child)”, was at variance with the Working Together definition:

“Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development.”

Perhaps neither definition would win a prize in a competition for etymologists, but I struggle to see how they are incompatible or for that matter even problematic. The Working Together definition is a broader one, but then we would expect it to be, given that its purpose is to provide the context for intervention, not to delineate an imprisonable criminal offence. And perhaps the 1933 Act now sounds a bit archaic, but there seems to be no evidence that it has become unusable when it is necessary to pursue criminal charges against people who neglect their children.

Nor do I think that social workers find that their practice is inhibited by not having a better definition of neglect. Most know neglect when they see it. How to define it is just an academic quibble.

I think the real issue is that neglect, broadly defined, is difficult to respond to. There are three distinct problems:

  • The first is that neglect is often an incremental phenomenon. In many cases there is no one clear event or crisis. Rather there is an ongoing, progressive deterioration in the child’s circumstances and conditions. This can make knowing when to intervene difficult and sometimes social workers become ‘acclimatised’ because changes in the family’s circumstances are small, frequent, cumulative and difficult to detect. 
  • The second problem is one of resources. Turning around a situation of neglect can require a long-term commitment of resources to a family. Sometimes it is hard for social workers to admit that these efforts have been in vain, so there is often an argument for just trying one more thing.
  • Thirdly some neglectful parents can inspire great sympathy and compassion. They may not be failing because they do not love their children or because they do not aspire to be good parents. They may be trying their best and still failing. Often deficits in their own histories explain their inability to give their children the care they need. So it can be painful for professionals to think in terms of care proceedings.

I remain puzzled about why Phillip Noyes thinks the issue of the definition of neglect is so important. And I think that his call for “a really serious think” involving a national review of both the civil and criminal law definitions of neglect is likely to result in an unhelpful distraction. I do not believe that we get more responsive child protection because we have clearer definitions, in law or in procedure. To believe that we do seems to be to revert to a pre-Munro view of child protection in which we move forward by following the manual, rather than understanding the child’s perspective and the issues surrounding the case. And better decisions are made not because national committees have produced the relevant guidance, or for that matter better definitions; they are made because professionals who know the child have carefully gathered the facts, considered the options and come to reasoned judgements.

You can watch the video of the Education Committee’s deliberations at: