WillisPalmer is urging the government to make vulnerable children a priority as schools re-open in September following six months of lockdown for some children.
Since the country went into lockdown in March 2020, WillisPalmer has raised fears for the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children going under the radar of the usual professionals that are in place to protect them, including teachers and social workers.
While schools have been open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, the take up of school places for vulnerable children was low. Some schools re-opened their gates to some year groups in June, but many children will have been out of education and at home for six months by the time they return to school.
WillisPalmer’s Chief Executive Mark Willis said: “We have been raising concerns for months about the long-term impact on vulnerable children that a lengthy lockdown period would have. Many vulnerable children are hidden away, incarcerated at the hands of their abusers, and may have experienced six months of abuse or neglect without the sanctuary of school or the safety network of children’s services.”
“We have repeatedly warned that many families will be living amid the toxic trio of substance abuse, mental ill health and domestic violence and the effects of this on vulnerable children will be devastating.”
“We are anticipating a huge spike in referrals to children’s services once children return to education, as schools are a main referrer. In fact, some experts have suggested that the hike in referrals could be as high as 250%, which is alarming,” he added.
WillisPalmer has launched a Children’s Charter which calls on schools to be vigilant for signs of abuse, neglect or mental health problems when children return too school and for the government to ensure children’s services departments are adequately resourced to tackle the onslaught of complex cases. Children who have experienced a troubled lockdown need identifying immediately and referring to children’s services for appropriate help and support.
Furthermore, parents and carers who have struggled economically, socially or emotionally during lockdown and where children are on the edge of care should be able to access intensive family support swiftly to prevent families being torn apart and children drawn into the care system.
We recognise that teachers cannot deal with these problems exclusively: teachers are responsible for education. However, they are ideally placed to identify signs of abuse or neglect and should refer any safeguarding concerns to children’s services.
Schools also need the back up of resources, funding and access to mental health professionals and social workers to help them navigate the right support for each child experiencing problems as a result of lockdown.
Our 10 point Children’s Charter aims to help professionals identify and support vulnerable children as a matter of urgency.
Mark Willis said: “WillisPalmer is launching our Children’s Charter to ensure that all children impacted negatively during lockdown have access to help and support as soon as possible to address the problems and thrive. It would be a travesty to lose a generation, blighted by poor mental health, poverty and abuse as a result of lockdown. These children need support immediately and the government needs to commit to ensuring that children’s services, schools and mental health services are adequately resourced and funded to provide this life-changing service.”
WillisPalmer’s Children’s Charter calls for the following:
1. All vulnerable children should have a one-to-one ‘welcome back’ session with a member of staff trained in child protection and safeguarding on return to education to enable them to discuss any issues they may have about returning to school or their experiences during lockdown. All concerns raised in these sessions that suggest a safeguarding matter should be referred to children’s services by the next day to ensure problems are addressed as a matter of urgency.
2. All children returning to school should have a one-to-one session with a member of staff eg, their teacher, TA, or a member of the pastoral team, welcoming them back with an opportunity to discuss any concerns about returning to school/problems they may have encountered during lockdown. Again any concerns highlighted should be referred to children’s services by the following day.
3. Counsellors and therapists based in schools should have an ‘open afternoon’ whereby pupils can drop in discreetly and discuss any problems they may be experiencing as a result of returning to school or as a result of lockdown. The use of various types of child-friendly therapy can be introduced during these sessions. Schools with no in-house counsellors or therapists should buy in trained professionals to support pupils and staff. Schools must receive additional funding to support this.
4. All school staff should have refresher training in spotting signs of child abuse/neglect and what to look out for.
5. Safeguarding leads should have access to refresher training courses in identifying signs of mental health problems including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, phobias, bipolar disorder, psychosis and body dysmorphia. The government’s commitment to having a designated mental health lead in each school or college by 2025 needs to be enforced with haste to tackle problems emerging from lockdown.
6. The government must ensure that children’s services are adequately resourced and funded to cope with the predicted increase in demand for services following schools’ re-opening in the short, medium and long-term.
7. Children showing signs that they have experienced abuse or neglect during lockdown should have access to help and support swiftly and any problems identified should be referred to children’s services by the following working day. The government’s green paper on children and young people’s mental health outlines that some areas will be trialling access to mental health support within four weeks, sooner where problems are severe. This proposal should be rolled out as soon as is reasonably practicable to support vulnerable children and ensure their lives are not blighted by poor mental health inherited through lockdown restrictions.
8. Parents or carers who have struggled with lockdown having experienced social, emotional or economic hardship should have access to family support in a bid to improve parenting and prevent children on the edge of care being drawn into the care system.
9. The government should expand its plans on placing social workers in schools safely and in-line with COVID-19 safety guidance to ensure school pupils and staff have access to a trained child protection specialist in order to respond to safeguarding concerns and mental health issues.
10. The government must demonstrate a commitment to schools in the long-term to ensure that problems that have been created through the impact of lockdown are tackled as soon as they come to light. Schools should have the funding and access to social work and psychological services to ensure ongoing support, given that many of these issues may be complex and will not emerge – or disappear – overnight.