Professor Paul Bywaters, University of Huddersfield and Dr Guy Skinner, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation

This project adds to the work of the Child Welfare Inequalities Project with a critical review of new evidence about the relationship between poverty and child abuse and neglect published between 2016 and 2021. It updates a previous review published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 

Underlying social and economic inequalities in developed economies have continued to widen. In England this has been accompanied by record levels of children in out-of-home care, with more than one child in 60 being investigated for abuse or neglect every year.

The project found 90 new studies in 13 developed countries detailing the nature, strength and timing of the relationship between different aspects of poverty and various forms of child abuse and neglect. The studies confirmed that poverty and inequality are key drivers of harm to children. The evidence base for this is much stronger than in 2016.

However, child protection services are too rarely engaging effectively with the impact of income, employment and housing conditions on families and children. This lack of recognition of parents’ difficulties in meeting children’s basic needs compounds parents’ feelings of shame and stigma. In turn, this disrupts the chances of child protection services establishing effective relationships with families under pressure. 

The focus of child protection systems and practice on the behaviour and circumstances of individuals and families deflects attention from social harms: the responsibility of the state for - and its potential for preventing - child abuse and neglect. 

Proposals for action include redistributive macro-economic policies, poverty-proofing child protection practice and an extensive research agenda.