By Mark Willis, Chief Executive, WillisPalmer
As children and teenagers returned to school last week or are heading back to the classroom this week, WillisPalmer is reiterating our calls made in our Children’s Charter to identify and support children who may have struggled during lockdown.
Many children will have been out of an educational setting for over six months during lockdown and that will have been challenging for the most resilient of children and young people. A lack of routine, missing their friends, little social interaction, adaptations to the way they learn, fearing coronavirus and maybe experiencing loneliness and isolation, as the YMCA reported last week.
These children will be nervous, apprehensive and scared and have to deal with new classrooms, new rules, possibly bubbles, staggered start and leave times, increased safety measures such as hand sanitising and eating lunch in their classrooms.
Some children will have experienced mental health problems during lockdown and it is likely that those young people already prone to anxiety and depression may have found that the lockdown experience heightened their fears and exacerbated mental ill health.
Others may have seen loved ones experience deteriorating mental health or physical illness through their experience of COVID-19. However, for the most vulnerable children and young people, their lockdown will have been blighted by neglect, abuse, witnessing or being the victim of domestic abuse or being exposed to substance misuse, with parents struggling to cope.
Young people with internet access have been on their devices more than usual – which sex offenders have played upon. Sexual offences were rising pre lockdown and calls to Childline about sexual abuse have increased since March.
Young people being neglected at home will also have been more at risk to targeting from gangs and county line drug traffickers and at risk of child sexual exploitation.
As the children’s commissioner for England reported recently, many children will also be returning to school with the threat of facing eviction from their homes having spent lockdown in cramped environments with no outdoor play area living, sharing amenities in B and B accommodation.
However, the most vulnerable children have been hidden from services and professionals. Out of school, those experiencing neglectful or abusive family lives have not had the watchful observance of a teacher noticing a dirty school uniform or unexplained bruises. Children’s services have been pared back with regulation 445 being introduced to make exemptions to social care duties to assist the social care workforce during the pandemic, a move criticised by Article 39 which launched a judicial review and is now challenging the outcome in the Court of Appeal.
As children and young people are returning to school, we are urging teachers to be mindful of all children and to look out for any unusual behaviour in any children. We know that some families who have never been involved with children’s services have struggled in lockdown and been referred for support and so it is not just children already known to children’s services who should be on teachers’ radars but all children. Teachers need to have refresher training to spot signs of neglect and abuse and need to refer any safeguarding concerns to children’s services immediately to ensure children needing help and support are identified early and referred for support.
The children’s services sector has warned they are likely to see a spike in referrals and the government needs to ensure that children’s services are adequately funded to cope with the demand in services and that children receive the most appropriate service rather than the quickest and cheapest. We cannot paper over the cracks when it comes to children’s lives. Some children will have complex, deep-seated issues and will be suffering immensely. As a result, they will require comprehensive, child-focused support and treatment to even start to recover.
These children deserve better than to have their childhoods blighted by lockdown and to live tarnished with the consequences. They need to be identified swiftly and to receive the support and help they need. Those families struggling need intensive family support to prevent children being destined for a life in care and where safeguarding problems are severe, children’s services needs to step in immediately and provide these children with child-focused, intensive support to help them recover and thrive.
Read more about The Children’s Charter
Why the Children’s Charter is needed