Social workers have told of wealthy parents using lawyers, intimidation and powerful connections to shield their families from intervention over cases of neglect.
Their experiences have been detailed in research commissioned by the City of London Corporation.
It notified its children's and safeguarding committee today it was adopting findings of the Goldsmith’s University study into its Service Improvement Plan.
The study focused on social workers serving 12 local authorities around the UK, excluding the City, to hear their experiences of confronting neglect among affluent families.
Professor Claudia Bernard's study pointed out that while much research and social work training was focused on links between poverty and child neglect, it was rarely directed at wealthy families.
Previous research has suggested such abuse had gone under-detected, because of a bias in child protection authorities toward scrutinising families of lower socio-economic status.
However, emotional neglect among wealthy families could be difficult to determine, Prof Barnard said.
She explained: "People have these deep-set beliefs that this is happening in poor families, dysfunctional families, etcetera. So it doesn't matter if the situation is staring you in the face.
"The social workers I spoke to were going into these houses, that were so unbelievably affluent, with a fridge as big as a room - stocked with goodies, and having six holidays a year. They have all the material things, so it can be difficult to tell the signs of emotional neglect."
Prof Bernard warned against using the findings to generalise about wealthy families' attitudes to parenting.
However, she said she received an overwhelming response from social workers she interviewed, who were frustrated by the way they were treated.
'They know people in high places'
While most social workers told of finding children in wealthy families suffering from emotional neglect, they said they also uncovered sexual abuse, child sexual exploitation and emotional abuse.
Often the issues only came to authorities’ attention when parents were dealing with an acrimonious separation and needed a child welfare report, the study said.
Parental mental health and substance abuse problems were also a feature of many of the cases social workers reported.
However, they told of attempts to intervene in wealthier families resulting in blocked access to the child, formal complaints, demands to speak to managers, and threats of legal action.
Multiple study participants even told of local MPs and councillors wading in after complaints from families, and sending letters asking about the cases. Prof Bernard said this was particularly an issue in small counties.
One study participant explained: “They'll get on to their local councillor, someone who they go hunting or shooting with or play golf with, that's the reality of working in a very small place like this ... They know people in high places and they threaten you with people as well."
In one case, a social worker described a high social status family from a small county responding to an intervention by gathering personal testimonies from their community to prove what upstanding parents they were.
Another participant told of a little girl disclosing sexual abuse, only to receive complaints from the parents, and be rebuffed by school nurses who said there was no evidence and no way her “great mum” would ignore such abuse.
Social workers told of being left feeling “belittled” and threatened, and feeling as though their involvement was regarded as an unwarranted intrusion.
All social workers involved in the study said they felt that the parents’ socio-economic status gave them a sense of privilege that encouraged them to subject the social work practice to scrutiny in a way less wealthy families could not.
'Children live without love'
Psychotherapist and "boarding school syndrome" author Professor Joy Schaverien welcomed the research, saying she hoped the findings were noted by other local authorities.
She said her boarding schooled clients experienced early emotional isolation that left lifetime effects on sufferers' ability to form healthy relationships.
“Children live without love in these situations,” Prof Schaverien said. “It’s very difficult when you’re a child and you’re being told by your parents ‘it’s very good for you, we’re paying a lot of money for you; you had better make the most of it'."
What can be done?
The study concluded issues in dealing with affluent families needed to be incorporated into social work training, which was too often focused on case studies involving poor and working class families.
It also recommended managers provide strong support to social workers dealing with affluent families, as the complaints and threats could lead to serious stress and affect the outcome for the child.
A City spokeswoman said the nationwide report was commissioned to “shine a spotlight on a key under-researched area of social work practice”.
She added: “We will be considering how the findings can support both effective social work practice across the country and enhance our ambition to make sure every child in the City of London and beyond, including those from affluent backgrounds, is safe and feels safe.”