When you think of neglect, what is the first thing that springs to mind? Obvious indicators might include poor school attendance, children appearing scruffy or unwashed, or lacking adequate food.
Neglect is defined as the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical or psychological needs, in a manner likely to result in a serious impairment of their health and development.
We often separate it into categories; physical, educational, emotional and medical. But there is a common misconception that neglect wholly results from material poverty. It’s perfectly possible for a lack of emotional support to occur in homes where material wealth is plentiful.
“Affluent neglect is often under-recognised by both education and social work professionals.”
Globally, neglect remains one of the most common reasons for child protection proceedings, but “affluent neglect” is a particularly difficult one to spot. It is often under-recognised by both education and social work professionals and under-reported owing to a lack of awareness.
Unfortunately, the majority of case studies used in typical school safeguarding training will focus on children coming from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds. This plays directly into our unconscious bias and creates a stereotype of who may be at greater risk, which can compound our lack of awareness of affluent neglect.
A child who comes into school dirty, hungry or late is of course more likely to raise concerns than a child who is punctual and comes into school clean, wearing expensive ironed clothes, with a nicely prepared lunch. Yet, as educators we need to be conscious that both children may equally be facing neglect.
It is important to know how neglect manifests within affluent households. Examples include, but are not limited to: present but “absent” parents, lavish gifts replacing love and care, and children being placed under extreme pressure to succeed.
Barriers to supporting children experiencing affluent neglect are significant. More affluent families are less likely to already be on a statutory radar owing to the use of private health and tutor-based educational settings, and may be less likely to engage with statutory support agencies. In some cases, more affluent families will live a more transient lifestyle and if challenged will simply remove their child from the school.
“More affluent families are less likely to already be on the authorities’ radar.”
In a fee-paying school the parents may feel an entitlement as a customer, which creates a difficult dynamic for independent schools to navigate. They need to balance the dichotomy between the school’s responsibility to the child verses the responsibility to the parents who are ultimately the paying customer.
Of course, the answer is the responsibility to the child trumps everything, but that doesn’t change the confrontational situation the school faces dealing with an often difficult and entitled parental viewpoint.
Boarding school children are most likely to be from affluent families and often have parents/carers who work long hours and may not reside at home. This means that often teachers find it more difficult to speak with the parents/carers around concerns of affluent neglect.
“In a fee-paying school the parents may feel an entitlement as a customer, which creates a difficult dynamic.”
In some cases affluent families will be in a position of power, which again compounds the already unbalanced dynamic of the relationship with independent schools and their parents. A recent survey, undertaken by the Safeguarding Alliance of independent school teachers, found that this power dynamic often leads to a fear of confrontation with the parents and reduces teachers’ ability to assert their professional authority.
So as independent school educators, we need to be alert to affluent neglect and understand the presenting signs, and also take steps to ensure we are as prepared as we can be, to take action when we need to. The Safeguarding Alliance has developed a Five Step Plan (below) to enable independent schools to ensure they are well prepared to support children facing affluent neglect.
A Five-Step Preparation Plan
1. Update policies:
Review your policies to ensure they are up to date and fit for purpose. Ensure that the definition and examples of signs and symptoms of neglect include reference to affluent neglect. The policy should outline a clear reporting process to raise concerns. Policies need to be living documents to have a positive impact.
2. Staff professional development
Staff professional development should include case studies to ensure that affluent neglect is acknowledged as neglect. Staff must feel confident in identifying the signs and understand what they must do if they have a concern. Recapping staff knowledge and understanding periodically through short quizzes will keep safeguarding at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
3. Culture of vigilance and early identification
It is crucial for schools to have a culture of early identification. Schools cannot afford for staff to become professionally blind to affluent neglect. When abuse is identified early, children receive the right support at the right time, but this will only happen if we have a strong culture of vigilance. Early identification should be at the heart of safeguarding practice in schools.
4. Stakeholder engagement
In countries and regions where there may be a lack of external support it is important that you identify who your key stakeholders are, for example, lawyers, health, representatives, social care and police. It is important to communicate what safeguarding means in context to your organisation with all key stakeholders.
5. Safeguarding mapping
Safeguarding mapping will enable a school to identify safeguarding risks, trends and threats. It will also identify which children are more likely to be at risk. For example, when considering affluent neglect a school may wish to conduct a safeguarding mapping exercise as to who may be at risk.