Research - How common is the abuse of disabled children?

Research evidence suggests that disabled children are more vulnerable to abuse than non-disabled children. A large scale American study that examined records of over 40,000 children found that disabled children were 3.4 times more likely to be abused or neglected than non-disabled children.


The study found that disabled children were:

Overall, the study concluded that 31% of disabled children had been abused, compared to a prevalence rate of 9% among the non-disabled child population.

Recent UK government guidance is available: Safeguarding disabled children: Practice guidance (2009)

Research in the UK has been limited but a number of studies have indicated similar levels of abuse and neglect to that found in the US.  Higher levels of maltreatment of disabled young people than their non-disabled peers were found in a study of 3000 young people aged 18 - 24.

Disabled children living away from home

The numbers of disabled children living away from home is important when considering the increased vulnerability of disabled children to abuse and neglect. A study for the DCSF estimated that 13,300 disabled children in England are in long term residential placements in education, social care and health settings.  An additional group of disabled children (approximately 900) are living in foster care.

The numbers of disabled children spending time away from home on short breaks is also significant following there being increased funding under the Aiming High for Disabled Children programme.


A reluctance to challenge carers has been found together with a sense of empathy amongst practitioners with parents and foster parents who are felt to be under considerable stress. 

Research has also considered the contentious issue of the fabrication or induction of illness in disabled children and those with complex health needs by a parent. Parents have been known to deliberately exaggerate the effects of the child's impairment by falsely describing symptoms, seeking unnecessary treatment or inappropriately using medication.

The large number of adults involved and the nature of the care needs both increase the risk of exposure to abusive behaviour and make it more difficult to set and maintain physical boundaries. Some disabled children grow up to accept damaging, demeaning or over restricting treatment from others because they have never known anything more positive. There is also the possibility that disabled children may be schooled into accepting others having access to their bodies.

Barriers to communication

Communication barriers mean that many disabled children, including deaf children, have difficulty reporting worries, concerns or abuse. Some disabled children do not have access to the appropriate language to be able to disclose abuse; some will lack access to methods of communication and/or to people who understand their means of communication.

Even if a child can find the confidence and the means to tell about abuse, many of the avenues open to abused children, such as telephone help-lines and school based counselling, are inaccessible to many disabled children. There is significant vulnerability for children who use alternative means of communication and who have a limited number of people who they can tell, since these same people may be the abusers.

Black and minority ethnic disabled children

Double discrimination faces many disabled children from black and minority ethnic groups and refugee and asylum seeking children. They can experience additional difficulties and challenges in accessing and receiving services and often those they do receive are not sensitive to their culture and language or relevant to their needs.

Robert and Harris draw attention to the risk of disabled children from refugee and asylum seeking families being severely isolated and hiding their impairment through fear of being different or of this adversely affecting their immigration status.

Abuse and bullying

Spending greater periods of time away from home, particularly in residential settings, is a risk factor for abuse and Utting noted that this risk is compounded in the case of disabled children. Researchers have examined the particular vulnerability of disabled children in residential care linking this to characteristics of institutional life, problems in management and staffing and separation of children from parents and others whom they trust and who are able to understand their communication methods.

The welfare of disabled children at residential schools (especially those with 52 weeks provision) and in health units has been questioned, given the wide variation in practice of notifying the responsible local authority of the child's placement as required by section 85 of the Children Act 1989.  Researchers concluded that for children in placements funded solely by education there is unlikely to be anybody other than a parent actively checking whether or not the child is safe and happy.

Higher levels of bullying of disabled children have been found in a number of recent studies and in some instances the severity of bullying or harassment of disabled children could be classified as assault or abuse.  The Office of the Children's Commissioner found that disabled children and those with visible medical conditions can be twice as likely as their peers to become targets for bullying behaviour.

The National Autistic Society found that two out of five children on the autistic spectrum had been bullied at school.  Mencap found that nearly nine out of 10 people with a learning disability experience some form of bullying, with over two-thirds experiencing it on a regular basis.

Direct Payments

Greater use of direct payments and personal budgets, whilst supporting empowerment and choice, does carry some risks of children being harmed if the minimum requirements in respect of checks and references on those providing personal care have not been followed up.

The Direct Payments Guidance Community Care, Services for Carers and Children's Services (Direct Payments) Guidance, England (2003) makes it clear that the system of direct payments should not place a child in a situation where they are at risk from harm.  The local authority can exercise their discretion and refuse to give a direct payment if they consider a child is being placed in a situation where they would be at risk of harm as a result of being cared for by an unsuitable person.

However, the local authority cannot insist that the person employed through Direct Payments should have a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, prior to their employment.

Requesting a DBS check, together with the taking up on references, whilst not guaranteeing that a person is suitable to work with children, does offer a degree of reassurance about a carer's suitability to undertake such work.

In situations where the family decides not to accept the local authority's advice about best safeguarding practice, some local authorities are asking the family to sign a statement stating that the issues has been discussed with them and they are aware of the risks involved. Such statements do not of course absolve the local authority of their duties to safeguard the welfare of children.