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COVID-19 problems require a multi-disciplinary solution

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on everybody although the hardest hit has been vulnerable children.

Mental health problems have increased and been exacerbated , calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have risen drastically during lockdown meaning children have witnessed abuse and it has been widely accepted that abuse and neglect will have increased but, alarmingly, that has not resulted in an increase in referrals to children’s services.

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WillisPalmer Chief Executive Mark Willis said: “I had grave concerns about the impact of a lengthy lockdown on vulnerable children from the offset last March, fearing that vulnerable children would be incarcerated with their abuser for months on end.

“It was widely anticipated that when children returned to schools in September last year that there would be a steep increase in referrals to children’s services. That did not happen, which is even more alarming, as vulnerable children have been neglected and abused during lockdown but have not yet come to the attention of the appropriate services.

“Ofsted warned that child abuse seemed to be going undetected. What is concerning is that without support for these children, the impact on their physical and mental health and wellbeing will increase and lead to more complex problems.

“No child should become a casualty of lockdown and it is crucial that these children are identified as a matter of urgency and provided with support,” added Mark Willis.

This situation has not arisen because of lockdown: abuse and neglect were prevalent pre-pandemic. However, without the watchful eyes of teachers, less access to health services and a pared back early intervention service alongside social distancing measures meaning a families’ usual support network has been at arms-length, has resulted in abuse and neglect going unnoticed.

Frontline social workers were working in skeleton teams with colleagues self-isolating and shielding while trying to adapt their practice to a remote format to protect vulnerable children. Yet referrals were down, despite Matt Dunkley, director of Kent Council – the country’s largest child protection team – anticipating a 250% rise in referrals last September.

The reason behind this is unknown. But children would have left one class in March 2020 and returned to a new year group, class, teacher and peers in September 2020. Without the established trusted bond, they would be unlikely to disclose something as significant as abuse and neglect. Furthermore, teaching staff did not know their new class in September meaning any warning signs may have been missed as they would not have known the child was acting ‘out of character’.

For some children, their experience of lockdown would have been spending additional time with their family and being home-schooled. For vulnerable children, many will have been left to fend for themselves, hungry and dirty while others will have been forced to spend 24/7 with parents physically, emotionally or sexually abusing them with no end in sight and no one to help.

Our concerns were not isolated:

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “The impacts of the pandemic will be far reaching for some children, young people and their families. As this becomes clearer, more children and their families are likely to need support and councils expect to see a significant rise in referrals to children’s social care and demand for wider children’s support services.

A group of leading children’s charities Barnardo’s, Action for Children, The Children’s Society, NSPCC and the National Children’s Bureau said that years of under-investment have resulted in children’s services fire-fighting and unprepared for the “torrent of extra challenges” posed by COVID-19. Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said: “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.”

Jenny Coles, former President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services , said: “Before the pandemic, there was not enough money in the system to meet the level of need in our communities, Covid-19 has further illuminated and significantly exacerbated that inadequate baseline of funding. We are seeing newly vulnerable families who we’ve never worked with coming to our attention because of issues such as domestic abuse, neglect and financial hardship, and escalating levels of need amongst those who were already facing challenges.

The children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield  warned that 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.

What we know is that children who are presenting to children’s services have complex needs which need addressing. The DfE reported that the number of referrals to children’s services at March 2021 was 11% lower than in previous years. However, local authorities have reported an increase in the complexity of cases they are receiving.

Mark Willis concluded: “The world post lockdown is a very different world in terms of vulnerable children. Their needs have been hidden. When they are coming to the attention of children’s services, their needs are complex and need much work to help the child.”

“The MFA won’t be for everyone, but the fact that it is a multi-disciplinary parenting assessment, talking to families in their own homes, with support 24/7 where there is an element of risk, concluded in an eight-week timescale with input from a range of expert and experienced professionals adept in dealing with complex issues, certainly makes for a potential option for the many children harmed during lockdown,” said Mark Willis.

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