WillisPalmer launched our Children’s Charter back in August calling for a range of measures aimed at supporting vulnerable children as they returned to school following six months out of education.
Most children missed six months’ worth of education, but in addition to that, they spent half a year away from the watchful eye of teaching staff who are often best placed to spot signs of neglect and abuse.
In our Children’s Charter, we urged teachers to be vigilant to signs of abuse or neglect. We also called for the government to ensure that children’s services are adequately resourced to deal with an increase in referrals and for schools to have the support they need.
WillisPalmer were not alone in our fears for a rise in referrals.
- Matt Dunkley, the corporate director for children and young people at the largest child protection department in the country Kent County Council warned that there could be an increase of 250% in the number of referrals to children’s services and said there will be a crisis when children return to school in September.
- Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “The impacts of the pandemic will be far reaching for some children, young people and their families. As this becomes clearer, more children and their families are likely to need support and councils expect to see a significant rise in referrals to children’s social care and demand for wider children’s support services.
- A group of leading children’s charities Barnardo’s, Action for Children, The Children’s Society, NSPCC and the National Children’s Bureau said that years of under-investment have resulted in children’s services fire-fighting and unprepared for the “torrent of extra challenges” posed by COVID-19. Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said: “We know there will be a massive increase in demand for support, with the effects of the pandemic felt for years to come. But the overstretched system cannot cope, and the government must step in to fund vital early intervention services, so families get the help they need before reaching crisis point.”
- Jenny Coles, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “Before the pandemic, there was not enough money in the system to meet the level of need in our communities, Covid-19 has further illuminated and significantly exacerbated that inadequate baseline of funding. We are seeing newly vulnerable families who we’ve never worked with coming to our attention because of issues such as domestic abuse, neglect and financial hardship, and escalating levels of need amongst those who were already facing challenges. The end of the furlough scheme in October and the anticipated recession will likely further increase the number of families who need our help and support. Local authorities are bracing themselves for an unprecedented level of demand for children’s social care, in the autumn and beyond. We need and want to be in a position to support children now and in the future and we will need increased, and crucially the right, financial support from government to do this.”
- The children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield warned that many children are potentially vulnerable due to difficulties their families were facing before lockdown. For these families the loss of support networks, alongside the anxiety and financial pressures caused by Covid-19, could be what tips them from being able to cope, to reaching crisis point. There are many hundreds of thousands of children in England living in households where there is domestic violence, adult mental ill health and substance abuse. Many of them are not known to social services. For those who are known to services, during the current crisis, there is a real risk that many more will become ‘invisible’ – those who were getting early help from non-statutory services, or those assessed as ‘lower risk’ by social workers. While some children will still be getting home visits from social workers, those assessed as lower risk will be more likely to get support through virtual contact. But for these families the additional pressures from Covid-19 might turn a ‘lower risk’ situation into something worse.
As these experts have warned, there is a real danger that now children have returned to school, complex issues may well emerge among a significant number of children and result in a surge in referrals to children’s services.
We know that referrals are creeping up, but many of the problems encountered between March when lockdown began and September when children returned to school may not have emerged for a number of reasons. These include:
1) When children have encountered severe neglect or abuse, it is unlikely that they will want to disclose this immediately on return to school. Months of being oppressed by an abusive parent who showers them with love one moment and physical, emotional or sexual abuse the next will be confusing for young people. Some people who have been abused take years before they feel ready to disclose it for a number of reasons including shame, fear of not being believed, fear of retribution from their perpetrator, not wanting to disrupt things at home for their siblings, fear of what will happen following disclosure, for example, the fear of going into care away from friends.
2) Many children returning to education will have a new teacher than when they were at school six months earlier when lockdown was imposed. It is likely that they will have missed out on key events such as ‘step up days’ where they meet their new class and ‘meet the teacher’ sessions. New teachers will therefore not be aware of each child’s behaviour, personality and friendship group. So, for example, if a child is being more quiet than normal, their teacher may not know if this is typical behaviour for that child and some signs of abuse and neglect could therefore be unintentionally missed. Furthermore, some children disclose neglect or abuse to a trusted teacher, but as they have a new teacher to when they went into lockdown, the trusted relationship is not established.
3) Some vulnerable children talk to their friends when they have experienced difficulties. But having self-isolated for six months and not seen their friends as often as before lockdown, again, they may not feel comfortable talking to their friends about something so personal to them. They may also be fearful of how they will be seen by friends – or that their friends may tell other people.
4) Children may not understand that what happened to them is wrong and does not occur in ‘typical’ families.
It is therefore imperative that all children’s services professionals coming in to contact with children are aware that problems may not emerge immediately, and it could be months, if not years, before problems are detected.
Teachers need to be aware of signs of abuse and attend refresher training in child protection if required. As they build a more trusting relationship with their pupils over time, they should come to recognise signs that something is not right.
Education staff including teachers, teaching assistants, safeguarding leads and pastoral team members should hold weekly informal ‘drop in’ sessions for pupils wanting to talk about any issues they may have.
There should be mental health support based in schools from trained counsellors and therapists who are equipped to identify mental health problems which may be a result of abuse or neglect. Recent research found that less than half of state-funded schools had onsite support.
Children’s services need a long-term funding agreement to ensure that they have sufficient funding to work properly with the influx in referrals to children’s services and provide a long-term solution rather than ‘a quick fix’.
The government should expand on its plans to place social workers in schools to ensure that vulnerable children are identified and intensive work can be carried out with them on a regular basis with a regular trusted professional.
Chief Executive of WillisPalmer Mark Willis said: “The repercussions of lockdown will be evident in vulnerable children and families for years to come. The government needs to ensure children’s services are adequately funded to identify and protect children who have been impacted by lockdown. A long-term financial agreement is required to enable children’s services to adequately prepare for longer-term support for children as for many, experiencing half a year in abusive and neglectful environments, papering over the cracks will not cut it. Long term support, therapy and family intervention is required to support children to recover as best they can from the many difficulties they faced during lockdown.”
“Children in supportive environments will have found it difficult enough, out of education, little access to their friends and wider family and fearful about Coronavirus, maybe even experiencing illness and bereavements within their families,” said Mr Willis.
“But for those vulnerable children who have been subjected to months of abuse and neglect, with no refuge of school or their friends, they have been incarcerated with their abuser with no idea of when the abuse will end. The issues that will emerge will be complex and require a long-term, intensive response. We hope the government will heed our advice and ensure that vulnerable children get the help they deserve to prevent them bearing the scars of lockdown forever more,” he concluded.