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Vulnerable children ‘at heightened risk” as a result of COVID-19

The outbreak of the coronavirus has put hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children in England at heightened risk, the children’s commissioner has warned.

Anne Longfield has raised concerns about the dangers of vulnerable children falling through gaps in services and policy, adding that lockdown measures have removed most of the usual ways of identifying children at risk.

Anne Longfield said: “While the government’s decision to keep schools open for the most vulnerable children is welcome, sadly most of them are just not showing up. They are most likely at home, often exposed to a cocktail of secondary risks – a lack of food in the house, sofa-surfing or cramped living conditions, neglect, or experiencing acute difficulties due to parental domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems. Many will be caring for parents or siblings themselves in these incredibly difficult circumstances.”

WillisPalmer has been outlining concerns over the last few weeks that the effects of the lockdown could potentially be more dangerous for vulnerable children than the virus itself.

Speaking exclusively to The Parliamentary Review at the beginning of April, WillisPalmer Chief Executive Mark Willis said: “Children are at risk of abuse and neglect regardless of the outbreak of COVID-19. In fact, vulnerable children are at greater risk during the current climate.”

“We cannot justify a lengthy lock-down period in terms of months,” Willis said. “It will do more damage than the virus is doing.”

“There is a real risk that children are being left in dangerous situations for much longer than they should be, and we need to think about the long-term damage that this will cause both economically and socially,” he added.

The new president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services last week used her inaugural speech to anticipate a spike in referrals to children’s services after restrictions are lifted.

“I am worried about the pressures being stored up for us and what we might have to tackle, all of which comes on top of severely stretched and woefully under-funded children’s services. I do recognise this is true across all public services as a result of a decade of austerity, but children and young people should not, must not, pay the heaviest price,” said Jenny Coles.

The children’s commissioner’s local area profiles of child vulnerability will help national government and councils identify how many vulnerable children there are in each local authority area, and highlight groups at heightened risk during the coronavirus emergency – such as those in overcrowded or inadequate accommodation, with fragile parents, young carers, or without internet access.

The report warns that hundreds of thousands of children in England are living with “a cocktail of secondary risks that Covid-19 may exacerbate” such as food shortages, homelessness, living in cramped living conditions, neglect, domestic abuse, substance abuse and parental mental health problems.

While real-time data has been at the heart of the government’s battle against Covid-19, the children’s commissioner is calling for the same capabilities to be deployed to identify children at risk as the crisis unfolds, especially those who may not be getting help as social work and other services are being run with skeletal teams as workers are self-isolating, particularly those with underlying health conditions.

Lockdown measures have also made it more difficult to identify children at risk with schools open for children of key workers or vulnerable children – although recent data from the Department for Education suggested that just 5 per cent of vulnerable children eligible for a school place are actually attending. The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has written to school leaders and local authorities urging them to encourage vulnerable young people to attend school, which, Anne Longfield says, is a welcome move.

However, as the overwhelming majority of children with a social worker are not attending school, other community hubs – such as doctor’s surgeries, youth centres, children’s centres and libraries – are closed, it is difficult to detect those in need of social work intervention.

Given the unique circumstances, the children’s commissioner is calling for data from the following areas to be leveraged to give local services some of the missing critical intelligence they need to know which families may not be coping and need help:

- The police on domestic abuse call-outs, children going missing, or county lines activity

- The NHS on births and A&E attendances

- The DWP on new applications for Universal Credit or UC advances for families with children

- The MHCLG on families applying for homelessness support.

In the coming weeks, the children’s commissioner will be publishing a series of reports looking into particular groups of children acutely vulnerable under lockdown, such as babies and troubled teens.

Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, said: “I applaud the efforts of some schools and councils to ensure vulnerable children are still being visited by teachers or social workers. I’d like to see this extend throughout the country.

“Our figures on local need lay bare the extent and nature of child vulnerability in each area, and the extraordinary pressures on some councils to try and protect them all.

“I believe that with the right will, government – local and national – could ensure that all vulnerable children are seen and contact is maintained, harnessing if necessary the efforts of suitable volunteers, those from services which are currently closed or who are recently retired from child-facing work.

“It is essential that children who need help are identified and given the help they need,” she concluded.

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Councils are very concerned about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on vulnerable children, including both those who already have social workers and those who become more vulnerable as a result of lockdown measures.

“Referrals to children’s social care have fallen by more than half in many areas and councils continue to work closely with local partners and communities to identify children who may be at risk.

“Understandably, many families are concerned for the health of their children and other family members if they attend school. Councils are working with schools and families to provide reassurance, and to make sure that where children aren’t in school, they are still being spoken with regularly.

“It is essential that local safeguarding partners, including councils, the police and health, have the resources and capacity they need to keep children safe, and that communities know how to spot signs of risk and how to report these,” she added.

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