Well, what a year it has been. We started off 2020 with reports of the Coronavirus affecting people living in Wuhan in China, but at this point there seemed no real threat to the UK.
WillisPalmer started the year working on our new website and in January we were reporting on Education Policy Institute research which found that a quarter of referrals involving children and young people to specialist mental health services were rejected in 2018-19 as either their conditions were not deemed suitable for treatment or they did not meet eligibility thresholds.
The Troubled Families scheme was extended and the Return to Social Work scheme launched providing free training to former social workers wanting to return to a career in social work.
However, by the end of January, there were two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the UK.
Moving into February, a joint targeted area inspection of local authorities found that local agencies are often woefully ill-equipped to deal with child sex abuse in families. The report said that child sexual abuse in the family environment should be just as much of a priority as child sexual exploitation and needs long-term national and local strategies to understand and reduce its prevalence.
"The knowledge that agencies have gained and the systems that have been put in place for dealing with child sexual exploitation are not being applied in the context of abuse within the family environment. As a result, frontline professionals are not equipped to know enough about perpetrators of child sexual abuse in the family environment: how to identify them, what their escalation patterns are and how to prevent them from abusing children," the report added.
By the end of February, there were 16 cases of COVID-19 in the UK and the first British death from the disease was confirmed by the Japanese Health Ministry, a man quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
In March, the threat of COVID was becoming more apparent. By 4 March there were 85 cases of Coronavirus and the first death in the UK was confirmed. On 23 March 2020, prime minister Boris Johnson announced new strict rules applicable to the entire United Kingdom with the aim to slow the spread of COVID-19. The prime minister told the British public to stay at home, except for certain “very limited purposes” – shopping for essential items such as food and medicine, one form of outdoor exercise each day either alone or with others who live in the same household, for any medical need or to provide care to a vulnerable person and to travel to and from work where this is “absolutely necessary” and the work in question cannot be done from home. All non-essential shops, libraries, places of worship, playgrounds and outdoor gyms were closed, and police were given powers to enforce the measures, including the use of fines.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the government would pay 80% of wages for employees not working, up to £2,500 a month, as part of "unprecedented" measures to protect people's job under a furlough scheme.
Schools were closed to most children apart from the children of key workers and those classed as vulnerable ie children in need, on a child protection plan or Education, Health and Care Plan.
Yet by April, the take up of school places was low and Department for Education statistics showed that on Friday 17 April, just 5 per cent of vulnerable children were attending school , although this did increase to 15% on 14 May.
As England went into lockdown, WillisPalmer issued a warning that a lengthy lockdown period would be detrimental to vulnerable children. Very shortly after lockdown there were reports of an increase to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline .
The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 were introduced on 23 April and came into force the very next day. Parliament was given no time to debate the changes. Children’s rights charity Article 39 said the regulations removed and watered down 65 safeguards for children in care in England including timescales for social worker visits to children in care, six-monthly reviews of children’s welfare, independent scrutiny of children’s homes and senior officer oversight of adoption decision-making for babies and children. The protections in place for disabled children having short breaks and children in care sent many miles away from home were also affected.
Between April and June, as part of lockdown restrictions, many parents found themselves either working at home and home educating school-age children or furloughed and still home educating, with online guidance from schools and other places such as the BBC.
By early May, the number of recorded deaths rose by 693 to 29,427, giving the UK the highest number of COVID-19 related deaths in Europe. By mid-May, government scientific advice stated that the R number had increased slightly from between 0.5 and 0.9 to between 0.7 and 1.0.
In May, WillisPalmer extended its Child Abuse Litigation Service into Scotland and the head of the CALS service Philip King trained more than 10 Scottish social workers to extend our reach north of the border.
Towards the end of May, the children’s commissioner for England warned that lockdown could be detrimental to thousands of vulnerable children. At the same time, a group of charities warned that children’s services would be ill-equipped to cope with a rise in referrals when children returned to school and any problems encountered during lockdown came to light .
From 1 June, schools re-opened for some year groups, with many schools opening on a phased return. However, some year groups didn’t get to return to education until September. However at the end of July, Matt Dunkley, the director of corporate services at Kent Council warned that local authorities could see a spike as large as 250% in referrals to children’s services once all children returned to school in September with many having been largely out of education for six months.
At the end of July, children’s rights charity Article 39 launched a judicial review saying that The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 which were introduced on 24 April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were contrary to the objects and purpose of primary legislation, and against the Education Secretary’s general duty to promote the well-being of children in England.
The High Court granted permission for the judicial review on three separate grounds: 1) That the Department for Education failed to consult before making the changes to children’s legal protections; 2) That the Regulations are contrary to the objects and purpose of primary legislation, particularly the Children Act 1989 and 3) That the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson MP, breached his general duty to promote the well-being of children in England.
However in August the judicial review found that The Department for Education did not act unlawfully by introducing secondary care legislation for social workers in response to COVID-19, a judicial review has found. Article 39 took the case to the Court of Appeal.
The Redress Bill in Scotland was also launched.
In September, the government extended certain social care exemptions following consultation. Social Work England also launched registration for social workers .
WillisPalmer launched our Children’s Charter as children returned to school calling for schools and children’s services to be adequately resourced to identify cases where children had experienced neglect or abuse during lockdown.
All children returned to school with certain measures in place to try and keep children safe from Covid-19. However, the anticipated spike in referrals to children’s services did not happen, despite concerns being raised about a potential spike from WillisPalmer, the children’s commissioner for England, ADCS, the LGA and children’s charities.
WillisPalmer launched our Children’s Charter- One Term In looking at why referrals hadn’t risen to expected levels.
In October it emerged that technology had hindered certain cases in the family justice system. By this time, it also became clear that fewer children were in school due to Covid-related reasons .
In November, Scotland announced that it would become the first country in the UK to ban smacking .
Article 39 was victorious in the Court of Appeal when it ruled that Education secretary Gavin Williamson had acted unlawfully by failing to consult with children’s rights organisations ahead of introducing changes to legal protections for children in care.
Ofsted issued a number of warnings. While inspections were put on hold during the restrictions, the inspectorate carried out visits that reported on how education and social care providers were responding to Covid rather than resulting in a grade. Chief inspector Amanda Spielman revealed that violence towards babies had increased during lockdown.
She later revealed that children had regressed in basic skills such as potty training for younger children and reading for older children with signs of mental health problems emerging.
Ms Spielman also revealed in Ofsted’s annual report that child abuse could be going undetected as the ADCS revealed there had been a leap in the number of children being electively home educated as a result of fears around COVID-19.
It is against this backdrop that we enter 2021. More children are being home educated, away from the observant eye of teachers. Ofsted is warning that children could be experiencing abuse and this is going undetected and due to the employment instability that many sectors have faced, we could be facing a crisis in child poverty with one in four children experiencing food deprivation since the first lockdown.
There is undoubtedly a challenging year ahead, hopefully not in terms of the virus itself, but with the knock-on effect of the restrictions on vulnerable families.
We, as a profession, need to be armed and ready for the task in hand come January.
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