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Children’s commissioner: Thousands of vulnerable children at risk in lockdown

Hundreds of thousands of children in England are living with a cocktail of secondary risks that Covid-19 may exacerbate, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.

Anne Longfield highlighted that thousands of children are experiencing a lack of food in the house, homelessness, sofa-surfing or living in cramped living conditions, neglect, domestic abuse, substance abuse and parental mental health problems.

Ms Longfield said her local area profiles of child vulnerability will help national government and local authorities identify how many vulnerable children there are in each local authority area, and highlight groups at heightened risk during the coronavirus pandemic – such as those in overcrowded or inadequate accommodation, with fragile parents, young carers, or without internet access.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said: “The coronavirus emergency has put hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children in England at heightened risk. While the government’s decision to keep schools open for the most vulnerable children is welcome, sadly most of them are just not showing up. They are most likely at home, often exposed to a cocktail of secondary risks – a lack of food in the house, sofa-surfing or cramped living conditions, neglect, or experiencing acute difficulties due to parental domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems. Many will be caring for parents or siblings themselves in these incredibly difficult circumstances.”

Department for Education statistics showed that at the time this report was published in April, just 5 per cent of vulnerable children were attending school.

The children’s commissioner warned that lockdown has removed most of the usual ways of identifying children at risk. The Secretary of State for Education wrote to school leaders and local authorities setting out the importance of encouraging vulnerable children into school, as the great majority of children with a social worker are not attending school, and with other community hubs – such as doctor’s surgeries, youth centres, children’s centres and libraries – being closed, it makes it more difficult to identify children at risk of abuse or neglect. Some schools are working with councils to ensure that all children known to be vulnerable are still being seen by professionals and Anne Longfield wants this replicated throughout the country.

In this new environment, real-time data from the police on domestic abuse call-outs, children going missing, or county lines activity; from the NHS on births and A&E attendances; from DWP on new applications for Universal Credit or UC advances for families with children; or from MHCLG on families applying for homelessness support, should be leveraged to give local services some of the missing critical intelligence they need to know which families may not be coping and need help.

The local area profiles of child vulnerability highlights:

1) Families are under increased pressure

Many children are potentially vulnerable due to difficulties their families were facing before lockdown. For these families the loss of support networks, alongside the anxiety and financial pressures caused by Covid-19, could be what tips them from being able to cope, to reaching crisis point.

- Parental mental ill health - many parents with mental health issues will be able to parent perfectly well, but the increased anxiety Covid-19 causes, alongside increased difficulties in accessing support services, sharpens the challenge.
- Young carers - there are an estimated 102,000 young carers in England, but only 35,000 are known to local authorities. Many of these children will now have significantly increased responsibilities, as parents who are unwell or have underlying conditions will not be able to leave the house.
- Children with SEND - although children with Education, Health and Care Plans are entitled to a place at school, many are not taking up these school places. But caring for and educating a child with additional needs may place more pressure on families, especially if they are not supported to do so.

2) Children at risk or suffering harm

There are some children who we already know are living in dangerous circumstances – who are experiencing neglect, abuse and serious harm. For these children, as for adult victims of abuse, they are now forced constantly to stay at home in places where they are likely to be scared and in danger, with no way out.

- Child protection - there are over 50,000 children in the country on child protection plans, but there is significant variation around the country.
- Domestic abuse - there has been significant attention given to the risk to adults experiencing domestic abuse during lockdown, and some additional guidance and funding for helplines announced. However, children also suffer from being exposed to such abuse, and two thirds of the women in refuges have children with them.
- Criminal exploitation - although the initial signs are that lockdown requirements have led to a drop-off in gang related activity, there is a real risk that gangs will be finding new ways to operate and exploit children which we do not yet know about.

3) Children in care

Children in care who are living in long-term placements where they are supported by loving carers may be managing well during this period. However, the 78,000 children in care may also be facing some additional difficulties – for many, face to face contact with their families will not be able to go ahead. Many of these children will have experienced trauma, yet during this time access to therapeutic support will be much more difficult.
- Children in unregulated settings - of those children in care, perhaps the ones who are most vulnerable are those 6,183 children in unregulated settings – settings which are not technically allowed to provide ‘care’. These children will have to isolate without any family or carers around them, and if they do fall ill it is not clear who will be able to look after them.

4) Children who are at risk of falling behind in education

- Children in poverty - we know that children living in poverty already face significant educational disadvantages. Every year we see children from poor backgrounds falling further behind over the six week summer break, and longitudinal studies show that extra time in nurseries for young children helps to close the disadvantage gap.
- Children with poor internet access - there have been a host of innovative approaches to keep children learning when schools are closed. In order to access this, children need, alongside laptops, a good internet connection – something 8% of British households do not have.
- Poor housing conditions - many families will be finding the lockdown rules a challenge. But for those who are living in overcrowded conditions, finding space for children to learn and play will be far harder. Our data shows that children in London are particularly likely to be living in crowded homes – the 10 local authorities with the most children living in crowded conditions are all in London.

“These children were already vulnerable before COVID-19, and they are likely to be even more at risk now. We hope these profiles will be a valuable resource to help local agencies better understand which children are known to be at risk, and which children they need to find out more about. By mapping the levels of current need, they can work together with local partners and ensure that the needs of vulnerable families are prioritised now and in the future,” the report concluded.

Children’s commissioner: We’re all in this together

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