Mark Willis writes that it is essential local authority social workers are provided with PPE as they start to resume visiting vulnerable children.
Boris Johnson announced his roadmap out of lockdown measures this week, urging people who cannot work from home to get back to their jobs while the public can carry out unlimited exercise.
There was very little mention of children’s social work and vulnerable children in the 50 page document which ensued, save for referencing the phased return of children to primary schools, starting potentially on 1 June with reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children.
The document said that the rate of infection remains too high to allow the reopening of schools for all pupils yet. However, it is important that vulnerable children (including children in need, those with an Education, Health and Care plan and those assessed as otherwise vulnerable by educational providers or local authorities) and the children of critical workers are able to attend school, as is currently permitted.
“Approximately 2% of children are attending school in person, although all schools are working hard to deliver lessons remotely. But there is a large societal benefit from vulnerable children, or the children of critical workers, attending school: local authorities and schools should therefore urge more children who would benefit from attending in person to do so,” said the document, clearly passing the responsibility to schools to ensure vulnerable children are attending.
The lack of referencing to vulnerable children comes despite the government having introduced The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus)(Amendment) Regulations 2020 (statutory instrument 445) without consultation or Parliamentary scrutiny.
The measures dilute duties relating to social worker visits to children in care, where even a six-weekly telephone call is no longer mandatory, the duty for six-monthly reviews of children in care has been removed while children’s homes no longer have to have independent visits carried out monthly.
Safeguards for children placed out of area with people who are not connected to them have been lost as have the safeguards in relation to short breaks, particularly affecting disabled children. There is also a loss of independent scrutiny (pre-court stage) and other safeguards in adoption.
The move has been widely criticised, including by us here at WillisPalmer. I have previously highlighted that the relaxing of systems and timescales put in place to safeguard vulnerable children is of grave concern. While it may alleviate short-term pressures on local authorities currently working with fewer staff during the outbreak, it is merely storing problems up for post-lockdown when children’s services departments are likely to be inundated with referrals expressing concerns for children’s safety.
It seems we are not alone in our concerns. A frontline social worker recently told us: “What worries me is that children in care who are in new placements may not be seeing their social worker regularly and so if they are experiencing any problems or even abuse in their placements, they would not be able to disclose this to a social worker because statutory visits are not being carried out or are being done virtually. For children in care who are in a long-term stable placement with no concerns, this may not be so much of an issue, but in other placements it could leave children at risk.
“The local authority is the corporate parent to any child in care, therefore, if we are not fulfilling our statutory duty, we are effectively abandoning these children," she added.
The children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield has said that the measures set out in the secondary legislation should be revoked, saying she does not believe that the changes made in these regulations are necessary.
“I would like to see all the regulations revoked, as I do not believe that there is sufficient justification to introduce them. This crisis must not remove protections from extremely vulnerable children, particularly as they are even more vulnerable at this time. As an urgent priority it is essential that the most concerning changes detailed above are reversed,” said Anne Longfield.
The leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer has also tabled an early day motion urging the secondary legislation, which came into force on 24 April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to be abolished.
And the Department for Education now faces legal action as a result of introducing the legislation from Article 39, represented by Oliver Studdert, partner at Irwin Mitchell alongside Jenni Richards QC and Steve Broach from 39 Essex Chambers, and Khatija Hafesji from Monckton Chambers.
The children’s rights charity says that the secondary legislation removes or weakens 65 children’s safeguards, without any evidence of their connection to the current serious health crisis.
Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said: “This is an outrageous attack on safeguards which have been built up over 70 years, often in response to terrible failures in protect children.
“Legal action is always a last resort but we consider that this is the only way to ensure the rights of children in care are quickly reinstated. There is no obvious link between COVID-19 and the vast majority of the protections snatched away from vulnerable children” she added.
As we have been saying, while over-stretched skeletal social work teams have been told to prioritise cases, there is a real danger that many vulnerable children are slipping through the net, basically locked up with abusive or neglectful parents, themselves under enormous stress, and with no outlet or the refuge of school.
I am extremely concerned that, as domestic abuse is rising and mental health problems are being exacerbated under the pressure of lockdown measures, that a child tragedy is on the horizon.
Last week we announced that WillisPalmer will be providing free Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for all of our contracted professionals to enable them to work with vulnerable families with safety precautions in place. All contractors have been contacted to inform them that free PPE is available for WillisPalmer cases as soon as they need it. I would now urgently like to see similar measures put in place for local authority social workers so that they can feel safe as they go about their crucial role of protecting children in the community.
The only way these vulnerable children can be protected is for skilled, experienced social workers to be out in the field, seeing vulnerable families face-to-face and speaking directly to children on their own. And for them to do this as safely as possible, PPE is essential, at least in the short term until infection rates have dropped significantly.
I have repeatedly warned, if we are not careful, the damage of lockdown will be worse than the effects of coronavirus itself. Social workers need support from the government now so that they can do the job for which, typically, they receive insufficient credit.