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Kent director warns referral spike could be up by 250% when children return to school

There could be an increase of 250% in the number of referrals to children’s services as lockdown is eased further, the corporate director for children and young people at the largest child protection department in the country has warned.

Reiterating concerns that WillisPalmer has been raising over the last few months, Matt Dunkley, head of Kent Council’s children and young people’s department, said there will be a crisis when children return to school in September.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Dunkley said: “What we are looking at is a huge surge in September in children needing to be seen, families needing to be assessed, when they are at the end of their tether after six months being locked down or being out of the eye of their school.... that leaves us with a huge budget problem.”

“In September, just when the money from the government is drying up, the extra money that they've given for coronavirus will be beginning to dry up. So, children's services are facing their biggest challenge,” he added.

Before COVID-19, 40,000 cases were referred to Kent’s children’s services department each year. Yet Matt Dunkley warns that there could be an increase of 250% in referrals of children that need to be investigated and kept safe when lockdown is eased further.

There are currently more than 10,000 families in Kent being supported by a social worker.

WillisPalmer has been articulating our concerns since lockdown began that if the restrictions were imposed for a significant period of time, it would create endless problems for vulnerable families.

Chief Executive of WillisPalmer Mark Willis wrote a seven part series for the prestigious Parliamentary Review detailing that a combination of being cooped up at home, with no social interaction, anxieties around health, the pandemic and finances couple with many parents trying to juggle working and home schooling could result in a rise in mental ill health with vulnerable families self-medicating with drugs or alcohol which could then culminate in domestic abuse.

In fact, when Children First spoke to a frontline social worker just two weeks ago, she revealed that referrals had already started to rise despite many children not being back in schools, with most referrals being from the police about domestic abuse.

However, she also highlighted that many families who had never had any previous involvement with children’s services were being referred to the department as they were struggling to cope and exhibiting signs of mental health problems and were asking for food bank vouchers demonstrating their financial concerns. Furthermore, when they were asked if they would like their children to attend school and take a place as a ‘vulnerable child’ following children’s services involvement, social workers were “having their hands bitten off”.

WillisPalmer is not the only organisation to have raised worries. Children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield has raised fears for vulnerable children in lockdown while the Association of Directors of Children’s Services recently urged the Department for Education to lead the charge for sufficient funding for children’s services post lockdown - something WillisPalmer called for back in May.

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