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Blog: Further evidence emerges of massive hike in child protection referrals in autumn

By Mark Willis, Chief Executive of WillisPalmer

It comes as no surprise that a report into how local authorities have coped with COVID-19 has revealed that respondents are concerned about a massive spike in referrals once children return to school .

WillisPalmer has been warning for months about the detrimental effect that a lengthy lockdown period could have on vulnerable children and families.

Families cooped up in isolation with concerns about finances, mental and physical health, tensions rising culminating in substance and domestic abuse. Children may also have been incarcerated at home with abusers, neglected and subjected to emotional, physical and even sexual abuse for months, hidden from professionals.

Not only that, the children’s commissioner for England has raised concerns about vulnerable children during lockdown.

Furthermore, a coalition of charities warned of children’s services’ ability to cope post lockdown, with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services themselves saying that following years of cuts and austerity measures, they will struggle to meet demand post lockdown.

The latest research by King’s College London on the experiences of children’s social care in 15 English local authorities managing during COVID-19 found, said: “In all the feedback from authorities there was a note of caution about a future when the extent of harm to many children would be revealed after many months when it had been hidden. It was expected that the number of referrals would rise rapidly once schools reopened.”

The research comes after the director of the largest children’s services department in England Matt Dunkley, director at Kent Council, warned that he expects a 250% rise in referrals to children’s services departments once children return to school which, at present, is planned for September.

This month, a frontline social worker in a referral and assessment team told us that referrals had started to “creep up,” despite many children still not back at school at that point. The majority of referrals were, unsurprisingly, related to domestic abuse following referrals from the police.

She anticipated a surge in referrals as the schools broke up for summer holidays from teachers concerned about any child’s wellbeing and the potential for them being at home for six weeks ‘hidden’ from teachers and professionals. Yet, she also anticipated the major rise in referrals would come as children return to school and signs of abuse are picked up or disclosures made.

Mark Willis, Chief Executive of WillisPalmer, said: “It is of grave concern that lockdown will have had such a detrimental impact on many vulnerable families. By September, when children are expected to return to school, many children will have been ‘hidden’ from professionals for six months.”

“Lockdown has been challenging for most families at times. But throw into the mix mental health problems, financial worries, no social interaction, substance abuse and domestic abuse and problems escalate very quickly,” he added.

“Some children will undoubtedly have spent months in lockdown neglected or watching or experiencing abuse and under those circumstances the impact on their health and wellbeing is likely to be significant.”

“I really hope the government understand that children’s services across the country are going to need extra resources to manage the increased workloads in the coming months. If not then vulnerable children will be at continued risk of harm,” concluded Mark Willis.

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