Neglected older children are “going under the radar” of police and other key agencies, a joint HMIC, Ofsted and HMI Probation report says.
Although the inspectorates saw examples of good practice they raised concerns older children suffering from abuse are slipping through the cracks because the signs are less obvious.
The joint report calls for a “whole system”, co-ordinated approach to identifying and preventing neglect, better training for professionals, and for the behaviour of older children to be understood in the context of the trauma they have experienced.
“Despite a clear determination by police leaders that officers should routinely identify children who are vulnerable, police officers were not consistently identifying older children as potentially vulnerable to neglect or abuse,” the report said.
“Often, police officers focused on other complex factors such as drug offences and anti-social behaviour.
“Quantitative police performance information drives leaders and officers to concentrate on the quantity of child protection incidents as opposed to the nature and quality of decision-making. This does not then encourage police officers to think more deeply about the vulnerability of the older children they come into contact with.
“In too many cases, police officers were dealing with incidents involving children in isolation, without considering previous incidents or the wider context of risk and vulnerability including evidence of cumulative neglect.”
In one example, a child had committed more than 20 offences in a few months but police didn’t recognise it may have been linked to vulnerability and neglect - for example her thefts of small amounts of food and drink.
Not all police incidents were shared with other professionals and social workers and police offices failed to address the underlying causes of her behaviour.
Inspectors lambasted officers involved in a complex case which culminated in a child being held in police custody for days at a time and then released without money, support or a risk assessment for committing professional neglect.
The boy was at risk of exclusion from school and involved in criminal offending but had a long history of neglect, emotional abuse and witnessing domestic violence.
Inspectors also challenged plans to end multi-agency involvement with a girl who had suffered for many years as her mother was a user of class A drugs. She became involved in drug dealing but officers didn’t make the connection between her involvement in class A drugs and criminal exploitation.
Inspectors found some frontline police officers and youth offending team staff saw older, neglected children “simply as perpetrators of offences” and did not use their “professional curiosity”.
The report adds: “Children’s offending behaviour needs to be addressed but also understood in the context of their experience of neglect.
“Offending or behaviour that is putting children at risk may, for example, result from a lack of boundaries at home.”
Wide variation between areas in the response of youth offending services to older children concerned inspectors as opportunities were missed to work with children.
“In the worst cases, children’s needs as neglected and highly vulnerable children were not recognised and no services were offered to parents to address what, in some cases, was years of neglect,” the report said.
But inspectors praised the work of police officers who took time to talk to children.
One anti-social behaviour officer was commended for getting to know the family of an older girl who was attacking other children in her neighbourhood.
The assaults were becoming more violent and frequent but the officer realised neglectful parenting was contributing to the girl’s behaviour and shared what he had learned at a case conference. Swift action was taken to protect the children.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams said: “These inspections make clear the police’s commitment to working with partner agencies to keep children safe.
“We did however find that older children suffering from neglect and abuse go under the radar for too long, too often, with wider patterns of risk not recognised or responded to in a sufficiently timely way. This is an area that needs to be improved.
“The police may well be a vulnerable child’s first point of contact. It is therefore vitally important that the police are properly equipped to identify signs of neglect and abuse in children - especially in older children, where abuse is not always obvious.”
Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national director for social care said: “Older children are still children, and they need our love and care. They face risks outside the home in a way younger children do not, and need parents to provide clear boundaries and support on their journey to adulthood.
“Some older children we saw had been neglected by their parents over many years. These children are incredibly vulnerable. They can seem ‘resilient’ and appear to be making ’lifestyle choices’, when they are in fact finding unsafe ways of coping, like getting involved in gangs or misusing drugs and alcohol.
“Behavioural issues must, of course, be dealt with. But unless local agencies consider the role of neglectful parenting, and take action to address it, as well as supporting children in a way that recognises the impact of their traumatic childhood, then their chances of a successful future will continue to be low.”