A critical time for child protection

By Anne Longfield | 21 April 2020

The strains all children will be feeling during these unprecedented times – stuck at home, missing out on school and their friends – will be magnified for many of those vulnerable children either on the edge of, or growing up in, the care system.

The Government’s decision to keep schools open for the most vulnerable children was welcome. But sadly, most are not showing up. That means they’re most likely at home, too often exposed to a cocktail of secondary risks: lack of food in the house, homelessness, sofa-surfing or cramped living conditions, neglect, domestic violence, alcohol and/or substance abuse and parental mental health problems.

Babies too are particularly at risk from within the home in their first fragile months of life.

For children in care, it is the older teenagers living in semi-independent accommodation, who are particularly vulnerable – perhaps losing access to some of the vital support structures they relied on before the outbreak. In many children’s homes there will be strains on staffing.

Helping these children and keeping them safe is a challenge at the best of times, even more so now, though many local authorities and schools have responded with real ambition and determination. Schools have been transformed into community hubs, reaching out to vulnerable kids at home while delivering food packages and meals in the most disadvantaged communities.

Child protection practices have also been turned on their head – identifying vulnerable children, ensuring that those not in school do not become invisible and lose touch, and making sure that the complex judgements of social workers are able to continue, albeit via a screen. However, some councils report referrals to social services have dropped by 50% over the last month – thousands of children not being noticed and not getting the support they need.

The scale of the challenge is huge, which is why leadership and support from the centre of government is so vital. I know from the councils I’ve spoken with that the Government’s £190m to support children’s services is welcome, but at a time when councils have already had to overspend on children’s social services, the danger is the new funding will simply be plugging existing holes. Some children are very likely to fall through the gaps, particularly as the safety nets we rely on to keep an eye on them are less likely to be there.

The Department for Education’s scheme to link returning social workers with vacancies is very welcome and needs to be backed up by live tracking of vacancy/absence rates alongside funding to enable councils to increase their pool of staff. I’d also like to see DBS-checked youth workers, teaching assistants and others who work with children redeployed.

It has been encouraging to seeing how local agencies have been working closely together to support vulnerable children. This will go on once the lockdown ends. For many children, though these few weeks will have been extremely tough. They will need extra care and support as a result. That’s why it’s essential those there to help, nationally and locally, continue to make vulnerable children a priority as ‘the new normal’ – whenever that may be.

Anne Longfield OBE is Children’s Commissioner for England

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