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Children’s charities warn that children’s services are ill-prepared to cope with challenges posed by COVID-19

Local authority children’s services are ill-prepared to deal with the challenges posed by the coronavirus lockdown, a group of children’s charities have warned.

Years of under-investment have resulted in children’s services fire-fighting and unprepared for the “torrent of extra challenges” posed by COVID-19, analysis by Barnardo’s. Action for Children, The Children’s Society, NSPCC and the National Children’s Bureau has found.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said: “We have long warned about the 'perfect storm' facing children's social care, and the gap between demand and resource will widen further as a result of coronavirus.

"Even before the lockdown children were facing growing challenges, from knife crime and gangs, to cyberbullying and online grooming. Now there is a new wave of ‘hidden’ children, falling into poverty, experiencing domestic abuse and tipping the existing crisis in mental health into catastrophe.

“We know there will be a massive increase in demand for support, with the effects of the pandemic felt for years to come. But the overstretched system cannot cope, and the government must step in to fund vital early intervention services, so families get the help they need before reaching crisis point.

“But it is not simply about money - we need to spend resources wisely. This is why Barnardo’s is taking a radical new approach - working with national and local partners and investing our own resource to co-design and deliver services that change children’s lives, and the system around them, for the better,” he added.

Years of under-funding for children’s services budgets has meant that councils can only get involved when families have reached crisis point and need expensive intervention such as taking into care while preventive work has been forced to take a back seat.

The charities warn that children’s services are in a Catch 22 situation because, while they know the best long-term option is to invest in early intervention services, like children’s centres and youth workers, they cannot afford to do this. Instead they are spending a greater proportion of available funding on children in crisis.

However, with a “crippling spike” in demand expected, as the true extent of the devastation caused by the pandemic becomes apparent, children’s charities are deeply concerned how these already overstretched services will cope after the coronavirus crisis.

The charities fear that there are many children and families, ‘hidden’ from the view of professionals during the lockdown, who could slip through the cracks and reach crisis point before any intervention is provided.

Available funding for children’s services has fallen by £2.2 billion between 2010/11 and 2018/19 meaning councils cannot afford early intervention services, meaning that spending on early help has fallen by almost half (46%) during this period.

At the start of the decade, late intervention, including child protection teams and youth justice services, accounted for 58% of local authority spending on children and young people’s services. Yet by 2018/19, this had risen to 78%. The biggest increase in spending was for services for children in care, soaring by 40% between 2010/11 and 2018/19.

Deputy chief executive at Action for Children, Carol Iddon, said: “The coronavirus crisis has exploded into the lives of vulnerable families after a decade of decline in available funding for services that protect children from harm.

“It would be dangerously irresponsible to have an NHS with only A&E departments but no GPs, no cancer screening services and no public health education – yet this kind of short-sightedness is what we’re facing in children’s services. A system geared only for crisis, guarantees more children will end up in crisis. And we’re here because for ten long years councils have been backed into an ever-tighter corner, with no choice but to abandon early help services that stop family problems like domestic abuse or neglect from spiralling.

“We risk being unprepared for the fallout for families from the coronavirus crisis. The right thing to do for children - and the smart thing to do for public finances - is for the government to invest in early help services now, to stem the torrent of children being taken into care and reverse the ballooning financial and social cost of years of under investment,” she added.

The report by the charities finds that councils have had to make difficult spending decisions to bridge the gap between the funding they have available and what they need in order to keep services going.

They are forced to reallocate funds from other budgets and this has led to them being able to partially plug the funding gap, with spending on children’s services only falling by £536 million (a six per cent reduction) between 2010/11 and 2018/19.

But the leading children’s charities warn this is not sustainable in the long run – and some local authorities were already spending reserves in order to support children’s services provision.

The charities urge the government to help local authorities by injecting funds to repair the children’s social care system. This will enable them to be able to afford preventative early intervention services like family support and children’s centres. By doing so, fewer families will reach crisis point and so they will have to spend less on costly late intervention work.

The Children’s Society Chief Executive, Mark Russell, said: “Even before the current crisis, we were gravely concerned that the huge funding shortfall facing local government would leave ever more vulnerable children in danger.

“Now, the risks children continue to face inside and outside the home may be hidden from the view of professionals until the lockdown is lifted. Councils may then face a perfect storm of soaring demand to support young people amid massive new financial pressures.

“They desperately need extra funding from the government to support these children and rebuild early intervention services to ensure many more young people get help before they reach crisis point,” he concluded.

Children's services directors have responded to the charities' concerns.

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