Specific Risks for Children with Additional Needs

Safeguarding Network

February 2024 - 4 minute read

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Children with disabilities are nearly 4 times more likely than other children to be abused or neglected. Sometimes this is because of high care needs, difficulties expressing their concerns or because they do not understand what is being done to them is abusive.

6% of children missing education have an education, health and care plan for special needs, compared to 4% of pupils nationally. They are also more than twice as likely to have a child protection plan. 

Parenting children with disabilities comes with additional stresses and challenges, which can heighten the potential for abuse or neglect, especially in the context of a society where there remains much prejudice and barriers to disabled children and their families. Similar factors affect young people experiencing mental health conditions. 

Professionals can sometimes miss signs of abuse due to the complexity of young people’s needs, an acceptance of things being how they are, or allowing their recognition of the challenges facing parents to cloud their judgement leading to abuse or neglect being under-reported.

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“A child of compulsory school age or a young person has a learning difficulty or disability if he or she:

  • has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age, or
  • has a disability which prevents or hinders him or her from making use of facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream post-16 institutions.”

HM Government

Mental health problems range from the worries we all experience as part of everyday life to serious long-term conditions. The majority of people who experience mental health problems can get over them or learn to live with them, especially if they get help early on.

Mental Health Foundation

Children have a wide range of needs and this section considers children with a formal diagnosis or condition, as well as where issues are apparent but there is no formal diagnosis. These children are at greater risk of abuse or neglect and the barriers to identifying and intervening are also higher. 

It's important that we maintain an open mind about what we are seeing, and as suggested by Lord Laming, maintain a professional curiosity. For example:

  • not accepting that an injury is a result of the needs of the child, but instead consider what other causes there may be and what the evidence suggests.
  • considering a behaviour such as self-harm as possibly being indicative of abuse.
  • recognising the potential for fabricated or induced illness.

It is important that there are also clear lines of communication between all involved in the child’s care so that concerns can be discussed and referred as necessary.

Spot the signs

Most research suggests that disabled boys are at greater risk of abuse than disabled girls when compared to non-disabled children. (NSPCC, 2014)

Disabled children are more likely to be abused by someone in their family compared to non-disabled children. The majority of disabled children are abused by someone who is known to them.

Disability is a common feature where children have experienced abuse.

Children with disabilities at greatest risk of abuse are those with behaviour/conduct disorders.

Other high-risk groups include:

  • children with learning difficulties/disabilities;
  • children with speech and language difficulties;
  • children with health-related conditions;
  • deaf children.

What to look for

  • behavioural change;
  • unexplained bruising;
  • pain or itching in the genital area, bruising or bleeding near the genital area;
  • STIs;
  • unusual or extended absence;
  • aggression;
  • withdrawal;
  • fear.

What to do

Does your child protection policy reflect the additional barriers (both online and offline) faced by children and young people with SEND and supports them to deal with these additional risks (such as bullying or abuse)?

Everyone should ensure the needs of children and young people with SEND are being met and that they feel as safe as their non-disabled peers.

Listen to the child’s voice and non-verbal communication – ensure all children and young people have appropriate ways of disclosing abuse.

Maintain a focus on the child’s emotional needs, experiences, wishes and feelings

Ensure children and young people are aware; if you cannot make voice calls, you can now contact the 999 emergency services by SMS, once registered with emergency SMS

Create an environment based on equality and informed choice – help young people think about the issues and attitudes behind children with additional needs.

Some children with disabilities may find it more difficult to express their concerns or disclose abuse, however children with disabilities are most likely to turn to a trusted adult they know well for help such as family, a friend or a teacher.

Ensure young people know the risks – in an age and ability appropriate manner.

Check young people have safe relationships – create an environment where it’s okay to talk even about the most difficult things.

Know the signs and know what to do – use the checklists above, your safeguarding procedures and be confident in raising missing children as a concern.

Take action – communicate with the child or young person via their preferred method

  • remain supportive and non-judgmental
  • any concerns should be raised immediately with the designated safeguarding lead and keep taking action until you know children and young people are safe


  • EHC plans when a child or young person moves

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