WillisPalmer Chief Executive Mark Willis calls for investment in children’s services following 10 years of under-funding to enable them to help support vulnerable children bearing scars of lockdown
As prime minister Boris Johnson has announced certain further easing of restrictions imposed under lockdown, such as non-essential retailers re-opening and groups of six able to meet together in a garden, it is likely that it won't be long before certain guidance is issued around social workers getting back out in the community.
Local authorities will be planning how children’s social workers can get back to work, safely, with preventative measures in place, to help identify vulnerable children who have experienced neglect and abuse during lockdown restrictions yet unable to disclose their experience due to social isolation and schools closing to all but children of key workers and those allocated a social worker. Despite this, Department for Education figures showed last month that just 5 per cent of vulnerable children were attending school.
As the virus is now suppressed, daily infections are reduced significantly and on a downward trend, we need to look and learn from some parts of Europe and brace ourselves for the challenges ahead, of which there are likely to be many.
Vulnerable families, some known to children’s services, others not, have been cooped up in social isolation since 23 March 2020 with many experiencing fear around health, finances, vulnerable relatives and with some trying to home school their children all with no access to friends and family.
Tensions have mounted under the pressure. Mental health problems have been exacerbated among many – both children and adults – and it is likely many people will have been self-medicating with drugs or alcohol .
Furthermore, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline run by Refuge has seen calls and visits to their website sky rocket since lockdown began with women trapped at home with their abuser and children witnessing violence.
While referrals have actually decreased since lockdown with schools, which are a significant source of referrals to children’s services, being closed to most children and legislation being introduced to relax statutory duties on social workers, it is likely that once restrictions are eased and schools re-open – some as soon as 1 June - social workers will experience a deluge of referrals, many centred around the complex challenges posed by the toxic trio.
While WillisPalmer has previously reported that re-opening primary schools could be a lifeline for vulnerable children this will inevitably place children’s services and social workers under immense pressure.
In fact, a group of leading children’s charities including Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society and NCB, warned this month that children’s services are ill-prepared for the spike in cases we will inevitably see following years of under-investment.
This week, the County Council Network admitted that while a rise in vulnerable children and troubled families needing support as a result of the Coronavirus lockdown is inevitable, existing funding shortfalls and additional costs of the pandemic means that local authorities may struggle to meet the demand.
The easing of restriction is welcome and needed. Safety needs to remain paramount with social workers exercising caution at work and who should be provided with full PPE – as workers at WillisPalmer are - when visiting families who are displaying symptoms of COVID-19.
Vulnerable families resistant to intervention should not be able to use COVID-19 as a reason for refusing to see social workers and endangering vulnerable children further.
Fundamentally, following 10 years of austerity, local authorities need increased and sustained funding now more than ever to enable social workers to do their jobs and meet the requirements of all troubled families needing help and vulnerable children needing protection. Where there are complex cases, children’s services should have the funding and flexibility to be able to buy in specialist support to ensure children are seen quickly and receive the support they need.
Lockdown measures were put in place to keep us safe. Now social workers need to be supported, funded and equipped to deliver services to vulnerable children who need to be safe now.