Coronavirus: Social workers brace for a surge in child protection referrals when schools re-open

Exclusive: Children's Commissioner warns school closures will have devastating long-term impact on children without urgent action

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 06 May 2020 14:43 BST
Anne Longfield said more must be done to prepare for prepare for onslaught of new child protection cases when schools restart
Anne Longfield said more must be done to prepare for prepare for onslaught of new child protection cases when schools restart

Social workers are bracing for a surge in referrals of vulnerable children when schools re-open again as abuse and neglect suffered by youngsters in their homes goes unnoticed during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Children’s Commissioner said resources would be needed for councils and schools to meet the needs of thousands of pupils who are facing heightened risk during the UK's lockdown, which she warned could have a long-term impact on both their mental wellbeing and education.

Local authorities warned they would struggle to cope with the expected surge in demand without additional support from central government.

Child protection referrals have plummeted by more than 50 per cent in some areas of England at the start of April, as the majority of young people are no longer coming into contact with staff such as teachers who would normally raise protection concerns.

Anne Longfield told The Independent this was leaving children effectively “invisible” during this time, adding that more must be done to identify those vulnerable children – particularly those who are not currently known to children’s services – and prepare for an onslaught of new child protection cases when schools restart.

Across England, more than 1.5 million children live in families where one parent or carer has a severe mental health problem, while around 830,000 live in homes where domestic abuse has taken place in the last year – a figure that is thought to be rising during lockdown, with a 25 per cent increase in calls domestic abuse helplines recorded in the five days from 30 March.

Ms Longfield said: “We know a lot of vulnerable children aren’t known to the authorities and many will become more vulnerable during lockdown because of issues like domestic abuse in the home. They may have been getting by before coronavirus hit, and school would be a really important part of that, but not being in school intensifies the risk.

“All the local authorities I talk to say they’re expecting and planning for a surge in referrals once schools go back. But of course, that means there will be children now who need that help, which is why during this period and as children start to return to school, it’s really important that the schools and local authorities have the bandwidth and resources behind them to try and identify where those vulnerable children are."

Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said councils were “very concerned” about falling referrals to children’s social care and warned it was “vital” they receive funding needed to support children and families both during the current phase of the crisis and the recovery period.

“Councils are working with their partners and communities to try to identify children who may be at risk, and putting in place plans so that if referrals spike when children return to school, they are able to ensure children and families get the right help quickly,” she added.

“The impact of the pandemic on some children will be far-reaching, and it will be essential that the right services are there to support them.”

John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, said the sector was not adequately funded to deal with the expected rise in referrals, adding: “The government constantly speaks about the terrific job of the caring professions, but digging deeper reveals that the resources are still not there to enable social workers to do their jobs properly once we have a degree of normality. We are certainly not all in this together.”

The Children’s Commissioner warned hundreds of thousands of pupils were also at a “complete disadvantage” due to not having access to a device on which to take part in online classes, which she said would place many at risk of never catching up, and “hugely exacerbate” the current attainment gap in schools.

A third of pupils have taken part in online lessons during the coronavirus lockdown, with the figure differing considerably in different schools, accounting for around 57 per cent of privately educated children and around 19 per cent in state schools. Around 700,000 children are currently without access to a laptop or a tablet in their homes and 60,000 do not have broadband.

In mid-April, the education secretary Gavin Williamson announced a scheme to provide laptops and tablets to disadvantaged pupils to make remote education accessible during the lockdown, but Ms Longfield said this was not set to be fully in place until the end of May, leaving many children with “another month without anything”.

“I’m very worried about the children already educational disadvantaged for whom this will have been a period where they’ve fallen even further behind and potentially may never catch up if they aren’t given the support they need,” she said.

“We know that over the summer there’s an established understanding of learning loss for that six weeks, but for six months that's something that really starts to have a huge impact on the prospects of the child. We know poorer kids are about 18 months behind anyway, and that divide is likely to be exacerbated hugely because of this.”

She called on central government to provide schools with additional funding to introduce some form of “catch-up programme” to help disadvantaged pupils return to the point they should be at academically, and for the challenge facing teachers to be recognised.

The commissioner said this, along with ensuring local authorities are prepared for a surge in child protection referrals, was essential to make sure hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children are not negatively impacted by the lockdown for years to come.

“When I speak to some of the councils in areas already struggling economically, they’ve been saying it’s not just about now, it’s about what’s coming,” she added.

“What many children are experiencing now will have long-term impact, both in terms of the trauma and anxiety, and for those who have educational disadvantage, and the fact that they will need so much more support to be able to re-enter learning in any real way.

“We know the economy is going to be struggling in future. These children need every resource they can have at their disposal to be able to be resilient to what’s coming down the track as they grow up and set out on the world. One of the huge challenges for school and social services is being able to reach out to those families and keep in contact, and identify them in the first place.”

The government has been approached for comment.

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