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What do we mean by ‘vulnerability’?

In July the Children’s Commissioner launched a report about vulnerable children as part of her role to champion and speak for children in England.

The overall aim of this aspect of her work is to change the narrative about vulnerability and to guide a focus on the needs of groups of children which are not fully recognised.

The term ‘vulnerable’ is bandied about freely and used to refer to everything from a child who might be in poor material circumstances to those who are in clear danger of abuse or exploitation. So it will be helpful to stimulate a deeper debate about vulnerability to generate a more granular description of what is meant when people use the term.

But this is a big challenge. Getting the numbers straight is difficult for a start. The report itself recognises this. Information may be estimated (as in young carers) based on proxy assumption (living with parents receiving treatment for alcohol abuse) or simply not reliably gathered (children receiving home education). The initial trawl of the information which is available, led by Leon Feinstein, helps to make visible what is and is not known and will stimulate further work across the sector to build a better picture of how many children there might be concerns about.

But taking this information and knowing what to do about it is the real challenge. Improving understanding and raising the level of debate is one thing – what then happens as a result is another!

And are assumptions about what creates vulnerability understood? When I was a child, coming from a so called ‘broken home’ was expected to cause problems - certainly not an assumption these days. And of course, new vulnerabilities are constantly becoming better understood, for example in relation to child sexual exploitation and the mental health needs of unaccompanied asylum seeking children due to trauma.

Also, to bring about change do you focus on the many or the few? Some of the numbers are huge – over 2 million children are living in relative poverty. Whilst we know that a greater proportion of children who suffer abuse are from poor backgrounds, no one would suggest that being poor alone causes children to be abused. Whereas we do know that the risk of abuse is greatly magnified for children exposed to a combination of domestic violence and parental mental health and alcohol abuse issues. Phase 5 of the Association’s Safeguarding Pressures research finds that the effects of the ‘toxic trio’ (domestic abuse, poor parental mental health and alcohol abuse) continues to be a growing reason for the involvement of children’s social care. So we need a sense of scale as well as a narrative which is sophisticated, well informed and well explained to help to focus attention on the needs of particular groups of children.

As you would expect, I am most concerned to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable children are highlighted. So, for example, building upon the initial information which exposes our patchy knowledge about children who are missing from education, there are further questions which it is important to pursue. What is happening for children who have dropped out of view of the system? What risks might they be exposed to? We know that this has been a feature of several serious case reviews which describe graphically the potential impact of agencies losing contact with these children. So, this is just one example about how helpful it is to begin to put information about vulnerability in the public eye and trigger thoughtful attention to the issues raised.

It’s a brave move – everyone will have an opinion! The sheer scale of the debate could be daunting. But if, as is the ambition, this leads to better informed focus on what we mean, and more importantly what ‘being vulnerable’ means for children, that can only be a good thing. There is a real opportunity for the sector as a whole to ensure that this debate is, over time, not only better informed, but makes a difference to policies which can improve the lives of children.


Alison O’Sullivan is an Associate Member and former President of ADCS; retired Director for children’s, adults and social services; member of the Children’s Commissioner Advisory Board and passionate about mental health, children in care and care leavers.


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