The phrase ‘the child will not engage’ sends chills down my spine whenever I hear it used. Of course my reasons are somewhat personal but the truth is this phrase often masks deep rooted problems, which may never get the attention they deserve. What I don’t like, and worry about, is that all the responsibility for the failure to connect seems to be put onto a child or young person – where its a matter of can’t not won’t. Sometimes I think the professionals that help children have got so used to treating them like mini adults they have forgotten what it is like to be a child – to feel frightened and alone and unable to deal with what may be overwheming challenges that would phase an adult, never mind a traumatised child or young person.

What happens when a child won’t engage is usually nothing or very little. Its often a stalemate situation where professionals and agencies let themselves off the hook, the child or young person gets no help, and those who love the child feel powerless and helpless. Its a perfect recipe for secondary trauma for a child’s parents or family. Its a pressure cooker situation where things get worse and worse and nothing positive is done.

The only time this happened to my child was when he had been removed from the family home against his wishes and mine for the second time. He just gave up at this point – spending most of his days in his bedroom in a costly children’s home (£5k per week rather than the £5k per year that is allowed to adoptive families through an Adoption Support Fund we could not access at all now). The poor kid was completely and utterly traumatised by the approach taken – but all I read and saw in the various assessments and reports was ‘the child would not engage’. ‘The child does not engage’ meant my son was assessed in absentia – which led to errors and misunderstandings that were impossible to correct, except, eventually, through going back to court to apply to get the Care Order discharged, and getting a court appointed expert to reassess. We got through the nightmare eventually because my child resolutely wanted to come home – and I battled and battled to achieve this outcome. We were lucky. There are so many of these cases with tragic outcomes – when a ‘child does not engage’, when a child or young person cannot live at home safely, and when there is no true partnership working with parents and carers.

Please, whenever this phrase is uttered, have a back up plan to move the child towards engagement. Change the approach. Have a positive plan to lead towards engagement – and if that doesn’t work then have another. Work with parents and carers not against them. Show the child or young person that they are cared for and thought about. Give them a committment to be of assistance when they are ready. Find out why they are not engaging. Do any fears get in the way? What could be preventing their engagement? What could be done instead or in the meantime to support the child? What can be done to support the parents or loved ones in this situation?

Please think very hard about what needs to be done to help the child and family through this difficulty of a child being unable to connect with a professional or service? For it is a situation that will probably not improve, unless the reasons for the problems with engagement and connection are properly thought about and dealt with.