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5.2 Abuse of Disabled Children


For additional guidance, please see Safeguarding Disabled Children: Practice Guidance (issued by the DCSF in July 2009).


In January 2014, this chapter was updated in line with the single assessment framework.


  1. The Child
  2. The Safeguards
  3. Communications

1. The Child

1.1 It should be remembered that disabled children are children first and foremost, and have the same rights to protection as any other child. People caring for and working with disabled children need to be alert to the signs and symptoms of abuse.
1.2 Disabled children must be responded to as individuals with their own specific needs, feelings, thoughts and opinions as any other non-disabled child. 
1.3 Disabled children are particularly vulnerable and at greater risk of all forms of abuse, including abuse whilst being cared for in institutions. The presence of multiple disabilities increases the risk of both abuse and neglect, but despite these additional vulnerabilities, their safeguarding needs are frequently not recognised or addressed.
1.4 Disabled children may be especially vulnerable to abuse for a number of reasons:
  • An increased likelihood that the child is socially isolated with fewer outside contacts than other children;
  • A need for practical assistance in daily living, including intimate personal care from what may be a number of carers, which may increase the risk of exposure to abusive behaviour and make it more difficult to set and maintain physical boundaries;
  • Physical dependency with consequent reduction in ability to be able to resist or avoid abuse;
  • Communication or learning difficulties preventing disclosure or making disclosure more difficult;
  • Carers and staff lacking the ability to communicate adequately with the child;
  • A lack of continuity in care leading to an increased risk that behavioural changes may go unnoticed;
  • Lack of access to ‘keep safe’ strategies available to others;
  • Parents’/carers’ own needs and ways of coping may conflict with the needs of the child;
  • The child/carers being inhibited about complaining for fear of losing services;
  • The child being especially vulnerable to bullying, intimidation or abuse by their peers;
  • Some sex offenders may target disabled children in the belief that they are less likely to be detected.

In addition to the universal indicators of abuse/neglect listed inDefinitions and Indicators of Abuse Procedure, the following abusive behaviours must be considered:

  • Force feeding;
  • Unjustified or excessive physical restraint;
  • Rough handling;
  • Extreme behaviour modification including the deprivation of liquid, medication, food or clothing;
  • Misuse of medication, sedation, heavy tranquillisation or invasive procedures;
  • Deliberate failure to follow medically recommended regimes;
  • Misapplication of programmes or regimes;
  • Ill-fitting equipment e.g. callipers, sleep boards which may cause injury or pain, inappropriate splinting;
  • Misappropriation/misuse of a child’s finances.
1.6 Where a child is unable to tell someone of the abuse they may convey anxiety or distress in some other way, e.g. behaviour or symptoms and carers and staff must be alert to this.

2. The Safeguards

2.1 Particular attention should be paid to promoting a high level of awareness of the risks of harm and to high standards of safeguarding practice.

Measures should:

  • Make it common practice to enable disabled children to make their wishes and feelings known in respect of their care and treatment;
  • Ensure that appropriate personal, health and social education (including sex education) is provided to all disabled children;
  • Make sure that all disabled children know how to raise concerns and give them access to a range of adults with whom they can communicate including independent advocates;
  • Ensure disabled children with communication impairments should have available to them at all times a means of communication;
  • Ensure that there is an explicit commitment to and understanding of disabled children’s safety and welfare among all service providers;
  • Ensure close contact with families and a culture of openness on the part of services;
  • Provide guidelines and training for staff on good practice in intimate care; working with children of the opposite sex; handling difficult behaviour; consent to treatment; anti-bullying strategies; and sexuality and sexual behaviour among young people, especially those living away from home.

3. Communications

3.1 Throughout the Social Work Assessment and Section 47 Enquiry, all service providers must ensure that they communicate clearly with the disabled child and the family and with one another as there is likely to be a greater number of services and staff involved than for a non disabled child. All steps must be taken to avoid confusion so that the welfare and protection of the child remains the focus.
3.2 Where there are communication impairments or learning difficulties, particular attention should be paid to the communication needs of the child to ascertain the child’s views and account of what has happened.
3.3 Children’s Social Work Services and the Police should be aware of non-verbal communication needs and where appropriate an interpreter/intermediary should be used to assist with communication.
3.4 Agencies must not make assumptions about the inability of a disabled child to give credible evidence, or to withstand the rigours of the court process.
3.5 Each child should be assessed carefully and supported where relevant to participate in the criminal justice system when this is in their interests as set out in Achieving Best Evidence which includes comprehensive guidance on planning and conducting interviews with children and a specific section about interviewing disabled children.

Further guidance about safeguarding disabled children is available in paragraphs 6.43 to 6.48, Working Together to Safeguard Children, March 2010 (now archived). See also Standards 5, 7 and 8 of the National Service Framework for Children, Young People and Maternity Services.