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Blog: Abuse during lockdown

WillisPalmer Chief Executive Mark Willis says all professionals working with children need to be ultra vigilant in looking for signs of abuse as we ease out of lockdown.

Children’s services professionals need to be vigilant for signs of emotional, physical and sexual abuse in young people as children return to primary school following lockdown, the chief executive of WillisPalmer has warned.

Teachers, social workers, children’s lawyers, the police, doctors, midwives and other health professionals all need to be “on top of their game” as prime minister Boris Johnson has announced that children can return to primary school in a phased manner.

Mark Willis, Chief Executive of WillisPalmer, said: “We have been warning for months of the problems that are being stored up during lockdown. While it was necessary to deal with the spread of COVID-19, it has meant that many children have potentially been trapped with their abuser for months. There will undoubtedly be a spike in referrals to children’s services once children return to school and all children’s services professionals need to be on top of their game and vigilant to detect any signs of potential abuse and ensure children get the help and intervention they need.”

Schools closed to the majority of children on 20 March, shortly before full on lockdown restrictions were unveiled. Vulnerable children and key workers’ children were still entitled to a school place during lockdown, but in April, just 5 per cent of vulnerable children were attending school, although this did rise to 15 per cent in May.

Lockdown has masked many societal issues. Formal referrals to children’s services departments have decreased during lockdown due to a number of issues including schools, as a main source of referrals, being closed to most children and care legislation introduced relaxing statutory duties on social workers.

However, there has been an explosion in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline during lockdown and mental health problems will undoubtedly have been exacerbated. Children will have been witnessing violence and experiencing neglect without the outlet of school. Some of these families will be known to children’s services professionals, others won’t. Some families may have found the financial insecurity, health fears, social isolation and a lack of routine too much to cope with during lockdown.

But it is children who will have borne the brunt of families struggling. Many may not have eaten a hot meal each day. Some may have had their basic needs neglected. Undoubtedly, some children will have witnessed domestic abuse dealt out to a relative they love and many will have been affected by living in a household with the toxic trio of mental ill health, substance and domestic abuse evident.

These children will have been virtually incarcerated with their abuser over the last two months and many will emerge bearing the mental and physical scars of lockdown.

That is why it is down to all professionals who come into contact with children over the forthcoming months to be overly observant when seeing young people. While children’s services will be more than aware of some vulnerable families in their areas, there will be families unknown to social services who have experienced various problems during lockdown yet those children are the ones more likely to go under the radar.

Social workers, teachers, children’s lawyers, doctors and other healthcare professionals are all trained and equipped to recognise the signs of child abuse and neglect. But it is now, more than ever, that those skills need to be utilised to start repairing the damage caused during lockdown.

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