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Ofsted: Violence towards babies increased after first lockdown restrictions

Violence towards babies has increased since the start of lockdown one in March 2020, Ofsted’s chief inspector has warned.

Addressing local authority leaders at the virtual annual Association of Directors of Children’s and Adult Services conference, Amanda Spielman said that between April and October, the inspectorate saw over 300 serious incident notifications.

“A significant proportion of these – almost 40% – were about babies, over a fifth more than in the same period as last year. And tragically, over half of these cases – that’s 64 children – suffered non-accidental injuries. And sadly, 8 died as a result,” said Ms Spielman.

“Violence towards babies was already a worry before COVID. Over a quarter of all incidents reported to the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel last year involved non-accidental injuries to babies. Children being abused, often by young parents, or other family or household members, who had very little social support.”

“As well as babies being intentionally harmed, we’re seeing a high number of unexpected infant deaths. Some, apparently preventable tragedies: babies not being put down to sleep safely, sharing a bed or sofa with a parent who has been drinking, for example,” she added.

Toxic mix

The chief inspector warned that that the effects of lockdown are being felt particularly keenly by very vulnerable children. While everyone is staying at home more as we have just entered lockdown two, for most children, that’s a place of comfort at best, boredom at worst. However, for some, it’s a source of danger.

“The pandemic has brought difficult and stressful times. Financial hardship, loss of employment, isolation and close family proximity have all put extra pressure on families who were already struggling. Poverty, inadequate housing, substance misuse and poor mental health – they all add to the toxic mix. You’ll be well aware of the increase in domestic violence incidents over the summer – just one symptom of the COVID pressure cooker.”

“Perhaps one of the most alarming trends that we’ve seen is the continuing rise in incidents of harm to the youngest and most vulnerable of all children, the under-1s. Of course, babies can’t tell an adult if there’s a problem. Often, abuse is only uncovered when there’s a critical injury, or when it’s too late. Another young life damaged, and in the worst cases, lost, before it’s really had chance to begin,” she added.

Ms Spielman told local authority directors that the inspectorate was well aware of the good work which has been going on to identify high-risk babies during lockdown before problems escalate to that state, such as work to prevent harm to the children of parents misusing substances, or with serious mental health problems.

The chief inspector said that Ofsted could not overstate the importance of curiosity here as “the right questions protect children”. All professionals who work with a family where there is a new baby have a role to play in consider how well parents are coping, and if there is any help that they might need.

Continuing restrictions may be hampering face-to-face visits. But, while these children are out of sight, they should never be out of mind, she added.

Keeping children out of sight

Ms Spielman welcomed the fact that prime minister Boris Johnson has said it will be a last resort measure to close schools during the lockdown, given that school staff are among the main referrers to children’s services. Over the summer, referrals to children’s services dwindled with schools closed and while most schools are now open, “the issues affecting children haven’t magically been resolved”.

This is something WillisPalmer sought to shine a light on last week. We launched our Children’s Charter as children returned to school following six months out of education for many, calling for schools to be observant for signs of neglect or abuse. Following this up last week, we recognised that many issues may not yet have come to the fore for a number of reasons including, shame, the difficulties around disclosure, fear and many pupils having new teachers at the start of the new term who may not be aware of their personalities, behaviour and habits. Given they have a new teacher it may be increasingly difficult for a child to disclose any issues given that a trusting relationship has yet to be formed.

Amanda Spielman added that school referrals are still low, as is the attendance of vulnerable pupils. Although attendance figures are decent, Ofsted’s autumn school visits have shown a rise in the number of parents opting to home educate their children.

“There will sadly be parents who want to avoid scrutiny, to keep their children out of sight – exploiting the situation to their own ends,” she added.

Unexpected benefits

Given the lack of structure that has been in place over recent months, Ofsted are carrying out visits but it is not about ‘inspections’ and gradings are not being given. Thematic briefing notes are being pulled together outlining what Ofsted has found happening across England, providing everyone with an overview of how schools, colleges, early years and of course local authorities and social care providers are responding.

School visits are going well and schools are doing some solid, thorough work. In social care, the visits have also been very productive. The inspectorate has visited 14 local authorities and more than 600 children’s social care providers so far.

The most recent briefing note sets out what has been found during Ofsted visits to children’s homes in September and, despite the challenges that homes are facing, there has been a great deal of good work going on. Staff have been working very hard to keep homes COVID-secure, while helping children live as normally as possible. Homes were making good use of technology to help children keep in contact with their families. For some children, this is actually having unexpected benefits, particularly those who normally find direct contact with family or social workers stressful. This could become a lasting legacy of lockdown in cases where direct contact isn’t in a child’s best interests, she told the conference.

The next set of briefings will provide a round-up of our first visits to local authorities. On the one hand, Ofsted is seeing some excellent work with children and care leavers, despite the restrictions – however, inspectors still have concerns about the drop off in referrals and the ‘hidden’ children.

Yet pressures on the family court have significantly hampered local authorities’ ability to issue care proceedings to protect children, Ms Spielman acknowledged, as well as delaying adoption and other permanence arrangements which isn’t good for children. Virtual court proceedings are helping with the backlog in some areas, however it is not clear what impact these new arrangements are having on families, she added.

Given the second lockdown, Ofsted will now be working remotely where possible and only going on site where it is necessary to do so, or in response to urgent concerns.

Waiting too long for CAMHS

Ofsted will be publishing a Joint Targeted Area Inspection on children’s mental health next month but Ms Spielman said that while some young people clearly need professional treatment, others don’t and “there’s a danger that we over-intervene in some cases, and not enough in others”.

Given CAMHS are already under a great deal if pressure, if the distinction is not right, the system gets clogged and then, when some children do desperately need specialist help, they don’t get it when they need it.

Ms Spielman said: “Our JTAI report takes a look at how partner agencies are working together to help children who need those specialist mental health services. The study is an overview of joint inspections with the CQC and others that we did before lockdown – but I think the findings have particular resonance now.”

“In the areas we visited, specialist CAMHS had been restructured to improve pathways, and to provide better support to professionals and parents. Children were being identified and getting the services they need sooner – though there were still gaps in all areas, and some children were still having to wait too long,” she concluded.


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