DISABLED children are among the most vulnerable members of society. But too often they are placed in the care of adults who abuse and neglect them.
American research indicates that disabled children in residential care are roughly twice as likely to be sexually abused as able-bodied youngsters, and studies in Australia have reached similar conclusions.
UK research also suggests that a high proportion of these children have been abused or neglected, although it has not specified where the abuse has taken place. Unfortunately, the British research is also nearly 10 years out of date.
It is therefore difficult to gauge the impact of the Children Act (1989) and the stream of official reports published during the 1990s. The Children's Act stipulated that disabled children living apart from their families had a right to special protection. The 1997 Utting Report produced a review of safeguards for children living away from home. And the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Department for Education and Employment also issued a joint report last year entitled Working Together to Safeguard Children.
Nevertheless, some researchers believe there is an urgent need to develop and monitor strategies to protect disabled
Thanks to Lottery funding, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children now intends to meet tht need. Its child protection research group is six months into a two-year study that should shed new light on practices in residential special schools. These schools are believed to cater for 14,700 disabled children (excluding those with emotional and behavioural difficulties).
The research will involve 12 schools in England and Wales and will be the first study of its kind in Britain. "The paucity of research in this field reflects the low priority often given to the needs of disabled children, and the myth that they are unlikely to be abused," said NSPCC research officer Alina Paul, who is co-ordinating the study.
"Our research focuses on residential special schools for children with multiple impairments, including severe learning difficulties. We will look at the policy statements and systems to prevent abuse - or to deal with suspected incidents - and will examine the way in which procedures and policies are implemented in day-to-day care."
She and her colleagues aim to highlight examples of good practice and develop a new policy guide for schools. They also intend to publish a parents' guide and provide information for young disabled people on care, protection and safety issues.
Alina Paul is keen to hear from TES readers interested in the NSPCC study, which is being conducted in association with the Council for Disabled Children. She can be contacted at the NSPCC, National Centre, 42 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3NH or by e-mail APAUL@NSPCC.org.uk