Enablers of help-seeking for deaf and disabled children following abuse and barriers to protection: a qualitative study

Research indicates deaf or disabled children face three- or four-times the risk of abuse compared with non-disabled peers.

  • Christine Jones, Kirsten Stalker, Anita Franklin, Deborah Fry, Audrey Cameron and Julie Taylor
  • Child and Family Social Work Advance access, (2016)

In 2010, Blackburn et al estimated 950,000 disabled children (7.3 per cent) live in the United Kingdom. Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities enshrines their right to protection, yet research indicates deaf or disabled children face three- or four-times the risk of abuse compared with non-disabled peers (Jones et al, 2012), and delay disclosure or are less likely to disclose.

Disabled children continue to be disempowered by societal assumptions and professional practice such as:

  • Varying thresholds for child protection procedures
  • Child protection practitioners lacking confidence in communicating with disabled children
  • Continued failure to seek their views.

This research seeks to increase understanding of their experiences, identifying enablers and barriers regarding disclosure, recognition, and response within the child protection system. It is a small scale project, with only 10 people forming the final sample (detailed explanation for this can be found in the full article), three of whom were children. Work took place between 2013/14 (prior to the current knowledge of historical sexual abuse), with interviews conducted with adults and children who had been abused in childhood; some had come into contact with child protection services, others had not. The two researchers undertaking the interviews have extensive experience of working with deaf and disabled people, with one being a native British Sign Language user, and both underwent bespoke training prior to commencing interviews.

A range of abuse had been experienced over several years for most. Six participants had been abused by parental figures, including one by foster parents. Abuse for many ceased when they either resisted or left the family situation. This demonstrates disabled children perhaps have more agency than often assumed, but also highlights ethical questions regarding the responsibility placed with them due to adult passivity. Additionally, for some, leaving the family situation increased risk due to insecure housing. Three key enablers outlined below were found.

Capacity of adults to detect abuse and respond to disclosures

For three participants, adults had detected abuse, two during infancy. This again highlights the burden of disclosure placed on children whose vulnerability is increased. Disclosure typically took place during adolescence following several years of abuse. Protection followed for some, but not all, participants. Some disclosures met responses reported as ranging from disbelief to the view the child was not worthy of help. Of the 13 childhood disclosures, two resulted in action to stop the abuse, and three were subject to criminal investigation, with one conviction.

Participants described seeking help non-verbally, with one woman describing frustration that her extremely challenging behaviour had not been recognised as distress. Another told how they had attempted suicide aged nine, and felt they had been given no opportunity to disclose. She and others described their distress as being attributed to their disability rather than an indicator of potential abuse.

Supportive contexts and relationships to enable help-seeking

Participants discussed social isolation limiting their friendships and reducing opportunities for disclosures to peers. Other people with whom secure relationships enabling trust and help seeking existed included family members and neighbours. Only three participants disclosed to professionals. These disclosures were to teaching staff despite high levels of involvement with health and social work professionals. The underlying reasons for this need further consideration. It may be due to the nature of the relationship, but may also be linked to the environment, and whether this enables professionals to demonstrate genuine concern and interest for the child they are working with.

Registered interpreters for deaf children

This was a crucial element. These interpreters facilitated disclosure and investigation of abuse, and strong relationships were formed over time. Inconsistency of access was a problem, and two participants expressed concern that abusive parents/carers were routinely used to assist communication, thus contributing to concealment.

Implications for practice

While a small scale piece of research, this highlights key areas for development including increasing awareness regarding the protection of deaf and disabled children, addressing their social isolation, and providing comprehensive support including guaranteed access to registered interpreters.



The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust.

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on special educational needs and disabilities.
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