Eight-year-olds identified in infancy as at risk of harm: report of a prospective longitudinal study

Source: Eight-year-olds Identified in Infancy as at Risk of Harm: Report of a Prospective Longitudinal Study Research Report: July 2016

By: Rebecca Brown, Harriet Ward, Jenny Blackmore, Caroline Thomas and Georgia Hyde-Dryden: Loughborough University

About the study

Findings from this study raise important questions about child protection policy and practice. In particular they raise issues concerning the support given to birth parents, adoptive parents, special guardians and foster carers to help them address their children’s enduring emotional, behavioural and idendity needs.

Significant findings include concern about the prevalence of serious emotional and behavioural problems by the time the children were eight. Many of these difficulties persisted whether children remained with birth parents or were permanently placed away from home.

The report indicates that attention should be paid to the challenges parents face when bringing up children in impoverished circumstances. The impact of welfare reforms and reductions in services on the wellbeing of vulnerable families should be monitored.

Co-ordinated long term support to enable children to successfully remain at home

The support received by many of the parents in this study tended to be relatively short-term specialist support from social workers, with cases being closed as quickly as possible only to be reopened. Support from other agencies also tended to be short-term and sporadic.

Expecting parents to progress within a few months from a position where they might have their children permanently removed to one where they were expected to look after them with minimal, or only sporadic, support is often unrealistic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the parents who succeeded in overcoming their problems and providing a nurturing home for their child(res) received coordinated, planned packages of care and/or long-term support from a professional who acted as their champion.

Co-ordinated long term support through separation

Just under half the children in this study could not be adequately safeguarded by their birth parents and were placed away from home. Wherever possible children were placed with relatives or family friends as kinship carers.

The study found that kinship carers and special guardians received inadequate material support to undertake the task of providing a permanent home for a child with complex and enduring needs, and insufficient professional support to help them meet children’s complex needs.

[…] the persistence and prevalence of children’s emotional and behavioural problems indicate that birth parents, adoptive parents, special guardians and schools, as well as the children themselves, all needed high levels of timely, skilled support to help address them.

Children’s identity: developing a coherent narrative

A high proportion of the children had suffered traumatic experiences in their early years. The study found that the children’s behaviour had deteriorated when they became confused about their identity and their place in a substitute family, or when they suspected there was a hidden reason why they had no contact with an absent parent.

There was a need for life story work not only with children but also with many parents and carers who were struggling to explain complex family relationships or to decide how much about an absent parent’s previous history of abuse it would be appropriate to reveal.

Some key implications for policy and practice 

Families in which children are suffering or likely to suffer significant harm are fragile and will often require co-ordinated long-term professional support.

Members of the extended family who support very vulnerable birth parents and/or who become kinship carers and special guardians, require extensive professional support.

Services for vulnerable/at risk children need to be available at a much earlier age than is currently the case. They need to be available according to need rather than status, and they should follow the child – being available whether the child is living with birth parents, foster parents or adoptive parents.

Services should support all carers to meet children’s needs for as long as required.

The key adults in helping children recover from trauma are their parents, carers and teachers. They require relevant support and training.

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