Financial worries, social isolation, being cooped up 24/7, substance misuse, mental ill health and frayed tensions resulting in domestic abuse – why referrals to children’s services are already on the rise before all children return to school.
Referrals to children’s services are creeping back up – despite many children still being out of education and schools being one of the main sources of referrals.
Rita Long, a frontline social worker in a referral and assessment team in the East of England, previously told us how referrals had declined during lockdown as only the children of key workers and vulnerable children were eligible for school places due to measures introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In addition, partner agencies had been told to only refer to children’s services when there was clear evidence of a problem in a bid to support social work teams, many of whom were operating with smaller or even skeletal teams while professionals with underlying health conditions were shielding or in self-isolation.
Despite eligibility for a school place, just 5 per cent of vulnerable children were attending school on Friday 17 April, according to figures published by the Department for Education. This figure did rise however to 15 per cent by mid-May.
Schools re-opened to various age groups from 1 June with most schools prioritising Reception and Years 1 and 6. However, plans for all age groups to return to school before the summer holidays had to be scrapped by the government.
“We are now operating with fast approaching the same levels of referrals as we had prior to lockdown with a combination of families already known to us and families with no prior involvement with children’s services, which is usually the case for us,” said Rita. “We are definitely seeing a difference.”
Families are struggling
During lockdown, the team was getting 6-7 referrals per week, but this has now increased to 15-20 families per week, along the same levels as prior to lockdown.
“I don’t know if official guidance to partner agencies has changed at all but while there is a level of risk that other professionals will sit with, there’s a whole other level which they are referring to us,” she added.
“There has been a significant number of children where referrals have been made to us and it is evident that families are struggling. Once they become involved with us, we have been liaising with local schools to see if the children can go back to school and parents have bitten our hands off to alleviate some pressures at home and the local schools have been very obliging.”
Rita explained that many of the families are generally just struggling with the pressures of lockdown. A lot of the low-level help at the local authority is currently not running a usual service such as young people’s work where professionals carry out direct work with teenagers. But due to lockdown restrictions, professionals are not visiting teenagers and are instead checking in via phone but as Rita says “it is just not the same”. As a result, many families are waiting for early help or not receiving it and problems are exacerbated in lockdown and worsen, meaning families need more intervention.
The majority of referrals the team has received are related to domestic abuse and have been made by the police, which is unsurprising given calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline soared in April during lockdown.
“There are a few things going on. Couple are spending more time together in lockdown and forced to be in close proximity to their family. In these situations, people are drinking or using drugs more and their mental health is worsening. There are many families struggling financially and this sparks arguments and people are reacting differently to how they normally would,” explains Rita.
There has also been referrals regarding substance abuse and the ‘toxic trio’ and Rita says the lockdown does not seem to have impacted on parents’ abilities to access drugs while other parents have said a lack of routine has caused them to drink more alcohol than usual. One parent who was a low-level cannabis user is struggling with her mental health in lockdown and has upped the amount of the drug she takes in response.
Food bank vouchers
Rita has also seen a rise in families experiencing financial problems and requesting food bank vouchers. However, Rita says that many of the local schools are offering food hampers and free school meals to vulnerable children – even if they are not attending education – with some schools providing a delivery service for free lunches.
“This pleases us as most times, a parent and the children come out to collect the lunches and so school staff are seeing the children and checking on their wellbeing. Schools are also regularly checking in with students and if they can’t access children for a few days when they should be at home during lockdown, they do alert us,” she added.
However, Rita anticipates a further rise in referrals prior to the summer holidays as usually happens. “If teachers have worries about a child and have been keeping an eye on them, they are likely to refer the child to us prior to the summer holidays knowing that child will be at home for six weeks and with no access to teachers. We usually get a rise in referrals before and after the summer holidays, around bank holidays and after Christmas where families spend more time together than normal.”
Upsurge in unborn referrals
Rita’s team is meant to have eight members but is currently still operating with six staff. Caseloads are manageable at the moment and social workers can request PPE when visiting vulnerable families.
However, just last week, council officials put posters up around the office on ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, deeming some desks as unusable as they are less than 2m from another desk and stated that only one lady could use the toilet at a time – 12 weeks into lockdown which Rita describes as “too little, too late”.
The relaxation of statutory duties for social workers has not affected Rita’s team directly as most of the changes relate to children in the care system while Rita deals with new referrals and assesses families. But anecdotally, she says the longer-term teams were initially being disciplined and carrying out visits via Skype whereas now they have returned to carrying out face-to-face visits as “it didn’t sit well with them not physically seeing the child”.
One trend that Rita didn’t foresee was a rise in the number of pregnant women being picked up for potential intervention when the baby is born. This comes as research has revealed that babies born into care has doubled in a decade. “We are only 3-4 months into lockdown yet there has been an upsurge in unborn referrals.
It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues as women get further along in their gestation period. I think we are a bit more risk averse when it comes to babies as the risks are higher. Older children in school are seen by teachers and other professionals whereas babies don’t always come into contact with that many professionals regularly aside from the midwife and health visitor straight after birth.”
“I think it is also a knock on effect of children’s services and health services working so much more closely together now which may not have been the case in the past,” she added.
“What will be interesting to see is if we do see the anticipated surge in referrals once all children are back in schools in September,” she added.
“We will definitely see an upsurge in referrals before the summer holidays and the longer this situation continues, people are worrying about finances, at home 24/7, drinking more which is impacting on their mental health, potentially taking more drugs and if it goes on to September we are going to be faced with a huge amount of families struggling to cope,” she concluded.