Understanding risk factors for children with disability

To reduce children being placed at risk we need to understand that children with disabilities are at higher risk than their peers of being unsafe. There are a number of reasons why children with disability experience increased vulnerability.

These include:

  • Some societal beliefs and myths held about sexuality and disability which construct the sexuality of people with disability in negative ways or do not consider that they have the same need for intimacy as their able bodied peers.
  • Some societal beliefs and myths that may be held by some providers regarding the child or young person’s right to safety, privacy and opportunities for positive social interactions.
  • They may experience a potential lack of understanding about social relationships, personal boundaries, protective behaviours, sexual awareness and an understanding of what ‘abuse’ or inappropriate touching is.
  • Children and young people are at increased risk because they may not have received appropriate human development and sexual education (or any at all)
  • If communication is difficult, some children with disability can find it hard to let someone know that they feel unsafe or even if abuse is occurring.
  • Children and young people may experience behavioural issues which are sometimes dealt with in a more ‘physical’ manner by carers, providers
  • Children and young people with disabilities may experience increased dependence on others to have needs met, and receive care by a number of carers or providers in addition to their parent or primary carer. Thus they have increased personal contact with others.
  • Due to their disability children and young people may experience a reduced physical ability to resist or avoid mistreatment and abuse.
  • Children may accept being bullied or mistreated if they have low self-esteem or a low perception of their abilities, or haven’t experienced others standing up for them.
  • Children and young people are more unlikely to tell adults, including their parents about when they don’t feel safe.
  • When children have felt unsafe their behaviour may have changed but others have not read these changes as an indicator that something is wrong. Experiences of ill treatment and even neglect and abuse of children is often not picked up by the people in regular contact with the child.

How can we support children – What can we learn about the signs children show that something is not okay in their lives?

We know that children communicate in many ways. They may demonstrate that something is not right through changes in their behaviours or in their bodies. These presentations may indicate that the child is experiencing a range of worries or problems – what is important is to recognise that this is their language – their means of telling us that something is wrong and we need to find out what it is.

Some of the following ‘early warning’ signs are indicators that children are not feeling safe and could or may be being maltreated in some way:

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  • Physical injuries, like bruises, broken bones, sprains or cuts that have unlikely or no explanations
  • Other physical symptoms of any nature including headaches, backaches, sleep disturbances, loss of control of bladder or bowel functions or unexplained weight loss. It may also include the feeling of butterflies in their tummy, feeling sick,
  • A loss of interest in the activities they once enjoyed,
  • Changes in their emotional state – being more dependant, unconfident
  • Dramatically changed behaviour, including depression, anxiety, phobias, self-injury or neglect
  • Unusual sexualised behaviours, including compulsive masturbation or trying to involve others in sexual acts