A Freedom Of Information request produced by a child rights activist has called out children’s charity the NSPCC for what it suggests is a reckless and less than upfront campaign designed to influence child protection policy.

Michele Simmons was reading an article which claimed that there was a sharp rise in child neglect cases, when she decided to search online for more information. What she discovered were over twenty strikingly similar articles all referencing statistics from the NSPCC, individually tailored for the readers of each regional publication.

A piece published in The Nottingham Post for example, cites NSPCC statistics for the area, claiming that the charity refers more than two cases of child neglect in Nottingham a week. In another look-alike story, The Oxford Times references NSPCC data which claims that three reports of child neglect a week are passed on to the police in the Oxford area.

All but one piece mentioned in the Freedom Of Information Request was published on 23rd August. However, further research confirmed that these copy cat stories were spread out across the whole of August, just before children are to head back to school, with at least 40 more entries spanning almost as many locations within Great Britain.

The Freedom Of Information Request asks for details about the origins of these articles, who requested them and how many areas were targeted.

Michele says she chose to make the request because she was concerned about campaigns like these demonising parents rather than promoting a policy of support and help:

“I understand why the NSPCC would want to raise awareness and it’s apparent they have been collecting data. Even though it has been displayed according to council and borough area, perhaps it would have been better to have published all the data in one article for all to read, showing the name of the council and the alleged percentage of neglect in each area.

It would also have been interesting to see a follow up story explaining the possible causes for the different levels of neglect in each area, for example poverty, which could be the root cause.”

The discovery has caused an uproar amongst some Family Court reform activists and parents who have lost children to the care system.

Concerned with what they feel is a short sighted campaign which will engender fear around neglect rather than encourage support for struggling families, campaigners and parents are now questioning the NSPCC’s data on child abuse, particularly its implicit claim that the calls they receive are all legitimate child neglect cases before the allegations are even processed or addressed by social services.

The name of the NSPCC’s report, “How Safe Are Our Children?” which holds the data mentioned in the articles, could also be being perceived as inflammatory, as could the less than balanced headlines for several of the news items involved (see the bottom of our post for a selection of headlines).

A question mark also remains over why referrals have risen over the last few years and so campaigners are seeing the NSPCC’s silence on this glaring information gap as an act of deliberate manipulation.  We know that an increase in referrals does not automatically mean that child neglect is itself on the rise. A higher volume of reporting could simply be a symptom of more people raising concerns, which may or may not be justified.

The ‘check list’ for child neglect is also raising eyebrows for what’s being viewed as a simplistic take on a complex phenomenon. The NSPCC suggests the following are signs of neglect:

  • The child may be aggressive and hostile, prone to angry outbursts or lashing out towards others
  • They may be more impulsive than others with poor concentration
  • Some children may be particularly quiet or withdrawn
  • Poor appearance and hygiene
  • Left alone for a long time
  • Poor language, communication or social skills
  • Seem hungry or turn up to school without having breakfast or any lunch money

The NSPCC’s call for a nationwide study into the extent of child neglect in the UK and its concerns that it is far more prevalent than current data suggests, is also considered a dangerous policy line by some campaigners. Without evidence to back up claims like this one, child protection reformers believe that campaigns which seek to encourage reporting off the back of a checklist like the one above could lead to a surge in wrongful removals, often at the hands of well meaning members of the public who may not be best placed to judge.

But a nationwide study could offer much needed clarity on exactly what child neglect is, how it develops over time and what causes neglect in the first instance. Whilst there have been reports published in this area, like this one from the NSPCC  and the government’s own training resources on how to address neglect, more could be done.

We would like to see a new investigation explore the following:

  • What percentage of child neglect referrals are found to be without merit
  • Of those referrals that are legitimate, what percent of those children end up in care, and how many are returned to their families?
  • When a referral is made and an investigation concludes there are child protection concerns, what percentage of councils look to solutions which support families rather than remove children in the first instance?
  • If councils don’t look at holistic solutions and ways to keep families together, why are they are not doing so?

More than anything, we would hope that a study would be built on a compassionate and pro-active agenda, creating powerful conversations that lead to the eradication of the root causes of neglect. Studies like this one published last month, called “Poverty, inequality, child abuse and neglect: Changing the conversation across the UK in child protection?”  provide an important template for other investigations moving forward.

Many thanks to Michele Simmons for sharing her Freedom Of Information request with us and to Yvonne Taylor for sharing the University Of Edinburgh’s research on how media campaigns influence child welfare policy.