The need to safeguard children has never been more imperative since the outbreak of COVID-19. Many of the measures introduced to combat the spread of the virus have placed vulnerable children in increasingly dangerous situations – which is why we cannot justify a lengthy lockdown period as the fallout will be even more damaging than coronavirus itself.
Social work teams are operating with fewer staff while those with underlying health conditions are forced to self-isolate at home for 12 weeks. Social workers at work are being urged to prioritise urgent cases which are likely to result in a S47 investigation and use technology where possible to retain contact with families on their caseloads but as referrals rise – which they inevitably will – social workers will increasingly be required to carry out face-to-face assessments of children and families while trying to adhere to government guidance such as standing two metres apart.
Local authorities have relaxed deadlines in order for depleted social work teams to cope with their increased caseloads where they are picking up the slack from their colleagues in self-isolation. But while such measures are needed, realistically it means that vulnerable children are in dangerous situations for longer with families under stress in extraordinary circumstances.
We have had reports of families wishing to evade children’s services involvement using the government guidance on self-isolation to avoid meetings with social workers, thus presenting further work.
The situation is echoed in the family courts. We have heard reports of children being left in the family home while care proceedings are taking place, even when there is a likelihood that children will be removed from families at the end. With deadlines in the courts being extended, these children are remaining in high-risk situations, sometimes for months.
Children and families in ordinary circumstances are being placed under immense pressure, cooped up indoors with non-existent social interaction. For vulnerable children, these pressures are exacerbated considerably as struggling families try and navigate their challenges in unprecedented times. The rare circumstances of lockdown can result in tempers fraying, mental health problems worsening and families self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
Local authorities have long reported a rise in referrals following Christmas when families spend a considerable amount of time together which can cause tensions and unrest. The festive period is a matter of days and we are already on week three of lockdown with no imminent signs of restrictions being lifted. Social workers are likely to have an influx of referrals and some are already reporting a rise.
The charity Refuge has reported a 25 per cent increase in the number of calls made to the National Domestic Abuse helpline with a 150% surge in the number of hits to their website during the initial stages of lockdown.
Mental health problems are set to rise with families trying to cope with working from home while home educating children, anxieties around coronavirus, job safety, finances and a lack of routine and social interaction. Children are likely to be confused and stressed about what they are hearing on the news and picking up and this is likely to have a knock on effect on their mental wellbeing.
Then there is the mental health of our social workers. Not only are they carrying out a difficult and stressful job pre-COVID-19, they are now dealing with increases in referrals, fewer staff in skeletal teams and worries about the safety of vulnerable children. Coupled with their own anxieties about potentially being ‘exposed’ to the virus on the frontline and carrying it home to families, children and loved ones places this already pressurised group of professionals under huge levels of stress and anxiety.
WillisPalmer is currently operating and continuing to provide expert social workers and psychologists to assist our colleagues on the frontline in local authorities, with safeguarding measures in place. Our team of professionals are updated with the latest government guidance at least weekly. We have produced a risk assessment matrix so professionals can ascertain whether home visits are feasible. We have extended our timescales to 12 weeks so that we can begin the assessments using technology and then towards the latter part we can undertake home visits/observations presuming the restrictions have been lifted. We have also produced guidance on various technology. These measures are in addition to recommendations from the government around rigorous hand washing and keeping two metres apart from others. However, lockdown procedures cannot continue indefinitely.
“This is a worrying time for the safety of vulnerable children,” said Mark Willis, Chief Executive of WillisPalmer. “We cannot justify a lengthy lockdown period in terms of months as it will do more damage than the virus is doing. There is a real risk that children are being left in dangerous situations for much longer than they should be, and we need to think about the long-term damage that this will cause both economically and socially.”
“With businesses closing, this could result in mass unemployment following the COVID-19 pandemic which results in families being plunged into poverty. We know there is a link between poverty and child abuse which will place further pressures on local authority children’s services departments. While we will assist local authorities with cases in a bid to alleviate the caseload of frontline social workers, the country needs to see a clear exit strategy urgently,” Mark Willis concluded.