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Constructing a Definition of Vulnerability – Attempts to Define and Measure

Technical Paper 1 in Children’s Commissioner project on vulnerable children

Legislation, guidance and agency policies and procedures are littered with references to ‘vulnerable children’. However there is no guarantee that they are talking about the same group of children, include the same types of vulnerabilities and are consistently applied over time. This section looks at some of the ways vulnerability has been approached in the past and suggests some key features to include in a contemporary operationalizable context.
Children Act 1989

The word vulnerable does not appear in the original Act and did not appear until the Act was amended to take account of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. The key distinction that is the focus of attention in the Children Act 1989 is that between child protection and ‘children in need’.
According to the Act child protection is provided when a local authority has “reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm”. The Act says that “a child shall be taken to be in need if

(a) he is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for him of services by a local authority under this Part;
(b) his health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision for him of such services; or
(c) he is disabled, “ (S17, 10).

“Development” means physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development; and

“health” means physical or mental health. (S17, 11).

Children in need appear to be those who are either disabled or are unlikely to achieve a reasonable standard of health and development in the future without the provision of additional support. It is worth noting that there is no mention of a vulnerable group with issues that fall below such a threshold.
As a definition it does, of course, beg a lot of questions, especially over what a ‘reasonable standard’ of development looks like. For example could children unlikely to obtain four GCSEs be deemed unlikely to achieve a reasonable standard of intellectual development?